Being Dead in South Carolina – Three Guys One Book Review
March 12, 2014 Leave a comment
In Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Warren Beatty’s John McCabe—with all his roughness and maundering—grumbles, “I got poetry in me,” an assertion with which nobody around him seems to agree. This dialogue kept running through my head while I read Being Dead in South Carolina, Jacob White’s debut short story collection, which begins with a question: “Look. Have you ever tried to right a car you yourself have tumbled?” Immediately, the reader intuits that this narrator is a fuck-up who spends his life attempting to fix disasters that he himself has caused. But check out the way he describes the overturned car: He calls it a “strange articulation of stupidity and rebirth.” He may be a fuck-up, but he got poetry in him.
The majority of the 17 stories in Being Dead are told in a conversational first-person voice. Many of these narrators are ne’er-do-wells whose unremarkable lives dot the American South; in this way, the book’s cover—a cheap-looking couch perched next to shimmering water—is a perfect evocation of its contents. But if you’re a reader fed up with the MFA-workshop-story conventions usually (if not entirely correctly) blamed on Raymond Carver’s brand of “dirty realism,” don’t be turned off.
Consider, again, that opening story—titled “Being Dead in South Carolina”—in which the narrator, after righting the car, ends up at a bar with some friends. By this point, the reader has learned that the narrator was shot in the head years before and has weakened mental faculties as a result. This feels like a familiar redemption story—he will fix his life, connect with other people, etc. etc.—until the final paragraph, which turns in a sudden, frightening direction. “I’ve been born again a thousand times,” the narrator says in the closing moments, “and each time’s scarier than the last.”
Consider, also, “Bethel,” in which the narrator recalls the time that his brother reappeared at the family’s farmhouse after a mysterious (and maybe murderous) six-year absence. The narrator was 12 at that time, and is now a middle-aged trucker. “Bethel” reaches its climax between the 12-year-old narrator and his brother, and then returns to the present, and then keeps going on and on for too many rambling pages, it seems, until it becomes clear that the story is actually about the narrator’s disturbing present-day psychology. White’s endings always force the reader to reconsider what s/he thought the story was about…
“The Days Down Here,” Being Dead’s centerpiece and best story, [is one] in which Hammond and Jean, an old married couple, have moved to South Carolina with their 19-year-old son, Zach. Their days are idyllic, but punctured with brutal flash forwards—“This was only weeks before her cheeks sallowed and sank, before her eyes turned to pitch”—which remind the reader that Jean has cancer and that these days, though idyllic, will be her last. The story becomes a sun-soaked Amour, and White’s poetic flourishes are in fine form. (At dusk, the lake becomes “a floating city of gridlocked boats.”)
Eventually, those problematic prose poems seem like a rehearsal for the climax of “The Days Down Here,” when Hammond, the narrator, describes his son doing something fantastic in a lake while the sun sets and his movements become “smears of shadow.” Here, White’s leap into sustained poetic language feels organic, attached to Hammond’s experience of the world as it becomes heightened and lyrical. This is the best story—maybe the best moment—in Being Dead in South Carolina, and it establishes Jacob White as a fine new writer.
Read the complete review at http://threeguysonebook.com/being-dead-in-south-carolina-by-jacob-white/