There’s a cab driver from Oxford, a former satellite television technician from Memphis, a former Air Force captain and IBM engineer from Sallis and a host of students and professors.
They are also the authors of “Mississippi Noir,” a short-story collection edited by Tom Franklin, himself a teacher in the Ole Miss master of fine arts program.
And it’s a Mississippi as creeped out as it sounds.
The cabbie Lee Durkee introduces us to “crazy women” in the shortest of the shorts, “My Dear, My One True Love,” a story set in Gulfport.
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“Oh I have known crazy women with winter’s constellations in their eyes, with flying saucers, brooding lava fields, aurora borealis, and diaphanously pulsing fireflies I have chased with my kill jar across many a darkening field.”
The fellow can turn a phrase. And he’s just getting started. He goes on for three beautiful pages. And I have learned less from thick novels. That’s the beauty of short stories. You can finish one in a sitting or if it isn’t working, you can skip to the next one.
Mary Miller, a John and Renee Grisham writer in residence at Ole Miss, takes us to Biloxi, where a couple of losers have been dispatched to photograph a woman. “Uphill” is another crazy woman story of sorts, but the woman in this off-kilter couple is left alone in a motel to ponder the bleakness the future holds for the “other woman,” who is being secretly photographed in return for a $1,000 payday.
Just dropped your children off at college? Perhaps you should skip the “Digits,” set among the creative writing students at fictional Winston College. These kids, it’s safe to say, have a singular way of showing their affection for a teacher.
“Baseball cap. College T-shirt. Brandon? Austin. Halfway into the semester, and I still confuse my baseball-cap wearers. There’s a similar look many of them have. A way of dressing, a way of talking and moving through their days.”
Innocent enough, you think? Just wait.
Mississippi, after all, is a state where the gulf between haves and have-nots is canyonesque.
Countering the privileged children of Winston College is the paycheck-to-paycheck underside of Grenada in Dominiqua Dickey’s “God’s Gonna Trouble the Water.” The prep school pot hustler in Jimmy Cajoleas’ “Lord of Madison County” contrasts sharply with the wholesome family on a road trip in “Pit Stop.”
But in Mississippi, darkness falls on both sides of the tracks. And that’s what makes this particular anthology, one of many “Noirs” published by Akashic Books, so unnerving. These could be your neighbors.
“Welcome to Mississippi,” writes Franklin by way of introducing the stories, “where a recent poll shows we have the most corrupt government in the United States.” A poll, by the way, that crawls right under the skin of the haves in state government.
“Where we are first in infant mortality, childhood obesity, childhood diabetes, teenage pregnancy, adult obesity, adult diabetes. We also have the highest poverty rate in the country.
“This isn’t, and hasn’t ever been, a land purely of moonlight and magnolias. Because in that moonlight, under those magnolias, terrible things happen.”
Check your doors.
$11.95 at Akashicbooks.com
Part 1: Conquest and Revenge
Ace Atkins: ‘Combustible’
Jimmy Cajoleas: ‘Lord of Madison County’
RaShell R. Smith-Spears: ‘Losing Her Religion’
William Boyle: ‘Most Things Haven’t Worked Out’
Part II: Wayword Youth
Mary Miller: ‘Uphill’
Jamie Page: ‘Boy and Girl Games Like Coupling’
Megan Abott: ‘Oxford Girl’
Michael Kardos: ‘Digits’
Part III: Bloodlines
Andrew Paul: ‘Moonface’
Dominiqua Dickey: ‘God’s Gonna Trouble the Water’
Lee Durkee: ‘My Dear, My One True Love’
Michael Farris Smith: ‘Hero’
Part IV: Skipping Town
John M. Floyd: ‘Pit Stop’
Robert Busby: ‘Anglers of the Deep’
Jack Pendarvis: ‘Jerry Lewis’
Chris Offutt: ‘Cheap Suitcase and a New Town’