Revisiting early published work can be painful. Often the work is short fiction, a form that does not hide flaws very well. Prose is found to be uneven and characters and scenes lack development. Paragraphs suffer for the presence of one beat too many, or one beat too few. Then there are those summary sentences, epiphanic and diaphanous and swooning. Or so you once thought.
At the same time, early stories offer a photo of the author as a grinning boy. Look closely, and the resemblance to the adult is obvious. Study the image hard, and perhaps return the goofy smile, and the differences start to actually blur. For many, the impulse to write fiction is rooted in awe and disbelief at how things are in the world. Because those things don’t change, neither does the impulse.
The fiction of Clark Blaise reads like an unusually pure dialogue between the literary child and the mature author self.Now in his early sixties, Blaise has been publishing books of short fiction for three decades and writing stories for nearly a half-century. Southern Stories focuses on his own upbringing, partially in Florida. According to the introduction, the earliest story was completed when he was just 18. Others originally appeared in books Blaise published into his middle years. As such, the boy and the man now share the same binding and cover.
More interestingly, the boy and the man are still not only telling the same basic story but also employing the same core images and motifs. It is swampy central Florida at around the time of World War II. There are Jim Crow laws and Klan marches and crackers who barely own the shirts on their backs. There is a chubby bright youth, dislocated from his native Canada, with a mostly absent salesman father and a mostly befuddled mother. School is a rite of violence and ignorance and the playground is not much better. The boy fishes using doughballs as lures. He drinks cold Cokes and listens to ball games on the radio.
The collection opens with “A Fish Like a Buzzard.” Although it is not so identified, the story is presumably the one Blaise wrote at 18. Two adolescent brothers are out fishing. They fight each other first, then a snapping turtle and finally a giant gar, a fish they hope to spear as it passes beneath their boat.“How big and ugly can one thing get?” one brother thinks. “Longer than the boat, and maybe twice as thick as the two of us hugging together.” A moment later, only one of the boys remains. “His eyes were weak from the late afternoon sunlight, and began to water,” Blaise writes. “They ached and wanted to close, but he forced himself to keep looking.” All he sees is the shattered pole and deep swirls in the water, a kingfisher staring at him from the spire of a cypress tree. He is alone now in the swamp, amid the emptiness and death, and is helpless to do much more than wait to be rescued.
The story is striking. The prose is assured and the dialogue, written in drawling dialect, is pitch-perfect. Hemingway looms as an influence, as does the cool realism of Maupassant. The young Blaise is listening and watching and recording it all. He isn’t present, except as an intelligence.
But the very next piece in Southern Stories introduces the more obviously autobiographical “boy” with the affinity for baseball and Coke. “Giant Turtles, Gliding in the Dark” also outlines a scene that will recur, with slight variations. It involves the arrest of the father and the confiscation, by nefarious means, of his business. At story’s end, the boy is hiding from the police with his mother. He lays a hand on her leg. “That’s how it feels, Mommy,” he says.
From here on, the fiction is of a different sort. Major stories such as “A North American Education” and “Notes Beyond a History” depart from conventional realism, especially conventions of chronological time and dramatic climax. Blaise opts instead for what the American novelist and essayist Fenton Johnson calls in his introduction “round, seamless narratives,” an approach comparable to that of Eudora Welty and Alice Munro. Johnson also makes a case for a link between Blaise’s narratives of the South’s “culture of defeat” and an older, more circular notion of time. The shadow of William Faulkner certainly falls over the writing, along with that of Thomas Wolfe, although the Canadian’s imagination is too precise for such deep abandonment.
The result is short fiction that is singular and arresting. “Notes Beyond a History” is typical. Its title suggests an essay, and large chunks of the narrative are devoted to the social history of a stretch of Florida swampland. The narrator shifts from being a mid-aged teacher and amateur historian in the town of Hartley to a boy living in a remote area back in 1932. There, he fell under the spell of a black woman named Theodoura Rourke, whose family had called the swamp home for generations.
After relating their encounter in vivid detail, the narrator admits “the records show no settlement of mixed-blood Catholics in Oshacola County in 1932, or at any other time.” Because Rourke can be found only “beyond” mainstream history, a story about her must take a similarly unorthodox form. Blaise ends on a trailing sad note. “Everything else around us crumbling into foolishness,” he writes.
That note is sounded again and again in the stories. “What a day it was,” another tale ends, “what a once-in-a-lifetime day it was.” Or the resounding final line of “The Salesman’s Son Grows Older”—“I’m still a young man, but many things have gone for good.”
At first glance, the direness of the lives Blaise depicts would hardly seem fit material for nostalgia. But the author, whose peripatetic youth has been matched by an adulthood as an itinerant writing professor, understands better than most the relationship between nostalgia and rootlessness. To have a home, to belong in a place, is a fundamental need. In the absence of such realities, the imagination compensates. Thus, the allure of the proverbial picket fence and mowed lawn. Thus, the myth of the dog on the front porch and the boy tossing newspapers from his bicycle. Or even the allure of a Florida backwater, where time hangs suspended like moss off a cypress.
A fixation with wanderlust and the cult of home defines much American fiction. His personal history aside, Blaise is a smart and sensitive disciple of that preoccupation. His decision to work the short-story form with such daring is a brave one, and Southern Stories is full of delights. Equally, though, Clark Blaise has never written more powerfully than in I Had a Father, his 1993 memoir of the parent who left such a complex bequest to his son. While that book included many of the same core components as the stories, the sustained narrative allowed for greater emotional and psychological resonance.
Similarly, there is a late-career novel lurking in this southern material, one of those swirling tales of internalized failure and timelessness. Admirers of Blaise may recognize the eternal needs of the bright, displaced teenager who wrote “A Fish Like a Buzzard” while hoping that the adult might consider stretching his talent to produce a work that will do justice to the things that are gone for good and the society “crumbling into foolishness,” over and over.