shining the spotlight on short story collections
Mostly Redneck by Rusty Barnes
Reviewed by Carol Reid
Rusty Barnes grew up in rural northern Appalachia. He received his B.A. from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and his M.F.A. from Emerson College. His fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared in over a hundred fifty journals and anthologies. After editing fiction for the Beacon Street Review (Redivider) and Zoetrope All-Story Extra, he co-founded the highly regarded literary journal, Night Train, which flourished from 2002 to 2012.
Many of the stories in his recent collection, Mostly Redneck, are fraught with tragedy and violence. Families are battlefields, love is harsh and fleeting, children a source of fearful hardship and pain.
‘If the Tree Falls’ is a breathless account of a father’s pursuit of his thirteen-year-old runaway daughter. The adrenaline-fueled progression of events moves so swiftly from vague, obligatory vendetta to senseless tragedy that the reader is left shell-shocked and numb. Barnes’s prose style has the precision, serviceability and, sometimes, the beauty of a well-tied knot. A brief and startling lightness is delivered in a few words, describing how the father comes to realize his daughter has begun menstruating –
She had grown breasts early and bled soon after—he found out when Lee and Corinne sat in the kitchen eating frosting from the plastic tub, midweek, no holiday or birthday for months.
‘What the Body Says’ demonstrates Barnes’s impressive ability to enter the female psyche and create what feels and sounds like an authentic female narrator. Stella’s destructive but enduring friendship with the more alluring and well-oiled Kate leads her onto a treacherous path of self-abnegation. Will she salvage or surrender her core self?
[Kate] rarely washed anything, throwing patchouli oil on everything instead. Everyone around her smelled like a head-shop tie-dye. I stole one of the tiny ornately filigreed bottles to make a necklace. She never noticed it was gone. I kept wearing it for ages, hoping she’d notice it and ask where it came from. I could have told her then: I stole it, like you did Billy, like you do all the time, like you display them in a fucking museum.
Many of the stories, such as ‘Where Water Fails,’ ‘Badman’ and ‘When Sylvester Dances,’ deal with the responsibility of caring, standing up for and protecting one other, and the overwhelming likelihood that all these efforts are in vain. Scenes of missed connections, bad connections, and the mystery of comprehending the needs of those we love abound:
She stands quickly, and there is a shower of tiny butterflies across the creek, tumbling madly through the air to her side, and if ever there was a sign, Richard thinks he sees it then. She curses once softly and reaches down for her pants, then pauses, her hands in front of her stomach, formed like a shallow bowl or cup. It’s as if she is asking him for a drink. But he has nothing wet. There is none around, the whole fucking world is dry, and he holds his hand out to her as if it is water, and she just looks at him (‘Where Water Fails’).
The clueless Harley in the sad/funny ‘Harley in Three Pieces’ endures a redneck odyssey, beset and tormented at every turn by the powerful, demanding, cruel females he can’t manage to cut loose. He dreams of his absent daddy, whose sudden and complete departure left Harley stuck at the emotional level of a sixteen-year-old boy. Not the sharpest tool in the shed, he is nevertheless a contemplative sort, always ‘trying so hard’ to re-establish better times:
He sat next to [Morena] during the nighttime game shows and read from the Song of Songs, trying to get a feel for how Solomon dealt with these things. If he couldn’t figure out what to do, and the twin does of her breasts and all that running streamwater under the Falls of En-gedi made Solomon lose his mind for a woman as well, what could he do?
Mostly Redneck doesn’t dress itself up, claim transcendence of its material or strive to create a romanticized redneck mythology. Readers looking for direct, understated stories with characters mined from the hardscrabble earth will find them here.
Read ‘The Howling’ here.
Carol Reid lives on the west coast of Canada. Her very short stories have appeared most recently online at Camroc Press Review, and Stymie.