Posts Tagged ‘The Name of the Nearest River’

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Live Nude Books: I was wondering if you could talk about your approach to compiling the stories in The Name of the Nearest River.  Did you write individual stories with the intention that they’d be parts of a collection?

Alex Taylor: Well, no, I never set out, envisioning any kind of linked collection.  I guess if there’s any kind of link between the stories it would be one of place and perhaps attitude of the characters, but I never really had bought into the notion that a collection of short stories has to be linked.  I know publishers want that these days ’cause it makes it easier to sell, if it has the appearance of a novel that’s broken up into parts.  But I was just writing stories; I just like the buffet feel of a collection, rather than any kind of unified whole. But, hey, maybe it has one; I’m not exactly sure about that.

LNB: You talked about the attitude of your characters.  Do their attitudes spring from circumstance?  Which comes first in your writing process, character or plot?

AT: Most often, a lot of my stories seem to stem from an anecdote that I’ve heard about.  Then it’s me, imagining what kind of—reimagining that anecdote into a more fully formed situation.  And then the character seems to arise out of that.  That seems to be what happens more often than not.

LNB: How does place inform your writing?

AT: Well, seems like—not just in the world of fiction or nonfiction or literature in general, but from everything to politics, economics, religion—anything you really want to think about; in America, we’ve become a culture of suburbanites, whereas the rural folks, they get ignored to the point where people don’t even really believe we exist.  (laughs) That’s what it seems like to me—I don’t want to come off, sounding like I got a chip on my shoulder.  (laughs)  But if you set a story in a place where you can still see the stars at night, it’s a strange thing for a lot of contemporary readers.  Sometimes they fetishize it, I reckon.  By the very nature of setting a story in a place that has a scant population and a lot of agriculture, I think you’re creating or tapping into a world that a lot of contemporary Americans don’t see on a regular basis.

That’s one way, I think, place can inform the story; it’s something that most people don’t think about.  But in regards to actually how does place function into moving the narrative along: when I’m thinking about a story and where it’s set, the landscape contributes to an overall thematic and philosophical ethos.  At the outset, I was only subconsciously aware I was trying to convey that.  Being from Kentucky, the ethos is largely one of loss and regret and often times anger.  But the landscape of Kentucky can often look angry, especially in the areas that have been strip-mined.

LNB: The language in your stories is very lyrical and the descriptions are fresh, yet these elements don’t slow the momentum of the narratives.  How important is language in your work, and do you worry about it overshadowing the story?

AT: I used to have a real problem with that, and maybe I still do to some extent.  I just wanted to write one metaphor and one simile after another.  Barry Hannah, my teacher at Ole Miss, he told me I was being “Piss Elegant.” (laughs)  He tried to cure me of that, and hopefully he did, at least to some extent.  I love language, I love writers that are thick in their usage of language; I prefer Faulkner to Hemingway.  It is a problem that you have to deal with, though, if you like poetry and you don’t want it to subvert the narrative.  So, I try to strike some kind of balance.

LNB: What are you working on next?

AT: Well, I’ve got this hideous novel that’s sitting in the corner here like a rabid dog.  But I’ve been working on it for about four years now, so it’s finished—well, the fourth draft is finished.  It’s not exactly finished finished, I guess.  It’s about a family that runs a ferryboat in western Kentucky.

LNB: What have you recently read that you’re recommending?

AT: I just read this collection of novellas—by this writer, I’m not exactly sure how you pronounce his name: Josh Weil—called The New Valley.  Really, really intense stories about Virginia cattle farmers.  One story, the last story, is an epistolary story, but the person writing the letters is a semi-retarded person.  It’s pretty interesting, in that respect, with that narrative voice.  Also just reread the book of Judges in the bible.  It’s always great fun, the Old Testament.

The title of Alex Taylor’s debut collection, The Name of the Nearest River, refers to a young man’s desire to copulate with his friend’s sister until she screams.  He doesn’t admit this desire to himself, however, until he and this friend are searching the Gasping River for a used car salesman, thought to be dead, who swindled and humiliated the sister.  They hope to find the car salesman before search and rescue teams so they can avenge the sister’s honor.  When they find the salesman’s body, their reaction is puzzling, yet it makes sense to who they are as people.

Set in Kentucky, these stories follow the lives of the lower class—people who have little money and live according to their own unwritten laws.  The characters in these stories are a product of circumstance and their environment.  In some cases, the places they live offer little and the people are forced to create excitement or even distraction, such as teens who glue themselves to a police scanner, driving to the sites where action takes places so they can gawk.

Or the elderly woman, a caretaker for the working class men in her life, who just wants to get out of the house where her husband’s on his deathbed.  When she takes it upon herself to get out, she becomes lost, unfamiliar with the land around her, as well as her own boys.  A neighbor comes to her rescue, offering her a lift on his four-wheeler, and she oversteps her bounds while riding her streak of newly found adventure.  But these characters are also motivated by loss, or in some cases, the fear of loss.  They seek vengeance from those who have wronged them or their loved ones because they’re “quick to anger and slow to forget.”

“The Evening Part of Daylight” starts with a punch.  Literally.  Lustus punches his bride-to-be, Loreesa, on their wedding day after she pokes fun of the boutonniere he made from a flower he grew.  Violence is his immediate and irrational reaction.  The wedding guests—preoccupied at the time of the punch, trying to catch a tagged catfish for cash—hear of what happened and immediately respond with the threat of more violence.  Lustus can’t help feeling “a kind of misty loneliness” when he stands before a mass of people wanting his blood and carrying with them “a feeling of moss and old ways.”

One of Taylor’s many strong suits lies in his ability to characterize.  He shows his readers distinctions in social class when his characters aren’t completely aware of them.  A 12-year-old boy named Luke has never known what life is like above the poverty line in the story “The Coal Thief.”  In order to heat their home during the winter months, his family must steal from the coal train.  His father died years ago after falling off a moving car, so now he must accompany his Uncle Ransom on the expeditions.

When a sheriff for the Paducha line stops them, Luke observes the man, thinking “it strange there were men like this in the world who dressed everyday in tailored suits and fresh slacks.  He doesn’t immediately understand who this man is, but he’s aware of his power over Ransom based on appearance: “as if stitched sleeves and raggedy jackets were no match for ironed-smooth trousers.”  But the story doesn’t end with the boy and uncle getting caught and arrested.  Ransom leads them through the woods, intentionally getting them lost even though he’s convinced the sheriff there’s a shortcut back to where they need to go.  What follows is a prime display of people’s capabilities when pit against the elements and survival is at stake.

While these stories do seem grim, its characters filled with despair, longing, and feelings of hopelessness, they don’t leave the reader feeling depressed.  Taylor incorporates humor into his stories, the kind that’s fitting of his characters: dark and crude.  “Winter in the Blood” begins with a man discovering three of his cows have been shot, while he and his daughter are on their way to bring a sheet cake to his terminally ill sister.  The culprits return, demand to be taken to the sister’s house and after they’ve made known their intentions of killing the family, Vela, the sister, cracks cynical jokes, already having accepted her fate long before this day.

What’s surprising—and this isn’t exclusive to this story—is how the focal character, Atherton, empathizes with the men who mean to kill him for no valid reason, other than they woke up, got the idea, and decided to stick to it.

Atherton wondered what it was that made a man go crazy, if it was things down in the pit of him or if the outer world, this cold rushing wintry life, was enough to do it, deadlines and mortgages and marriages gone bad, broken bootlaces and thumbs mashed while mending fence—if that was all it took to drive a man sourbrained, then he figured himself to be near as crazy as Harry.  And that made him feel okay, somehow.  His insides warmed.  A lightness rose in his head.  Unweariment, Vela called it, and he felt it spread through him.  Lovely.

There’s not always a rational explanation for why people do the things they do in these stories, which can be said about real life.  But these characters have an unspoken understanding with those who oppose them, and their tales almost have the feel of parables that put into question the way they think and the choices they make.  Told in the gritty, lyrical prose style of great writers from the south, The Name of the Nearest River marks a new chapter for southern gothic stories, one that deserves merit because, as you’ll see once you crack open the book, it has earned the full attention of its readers.

Sarabande Books
April 1, 2010

Alex Taylor’s debut collection of short stories, The Name of the Nearest River, is published by Sarabande Books. From the Publisher:

Alex Taylor lives in Rosine, Kentucky. He has worked as a day laborer on tobacco farms, as a car detailer at a used automotive lot, as a sorghum peddler, at various fast food chains, as a tender of suburban lawns, and at a cigarette lighter factory. He holds an MFA from The University of Mississippi and now teaches at Western Kentucky University. His work has appeared in Carolina Quarterly, American Short Fiction, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere.