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ISSUE 66: Underrated Books: A Sampling From the Southern Lit Issue

FOLLOW THESE LINKS FOR THE DELUXE, EXPANDED, ONLINE-ONLY EDITION OF THE OA SOUTHERN LIT POLL featuring an annotated list of the results (500 or so fiction, nonfiction, and underrated masterpieces—and why you might want to add them to your reading list), information about our 134 Judges, and opportunities for our readers to enter the great debate.

 


 

"After a Hundred Years of Solitude" by Aramis Gutierrez (Courtesy of David Castillo Gallery, Miami)

 


 

A LESSON BEFORE DYING

BY ERNEST J. GAINES

This book, as a rendering of a certain time in Southern life, and of a certain time in the African-American community, continues to grow in majesty and authority. It also contains a seed of prophecy, as it opens a window on the splits—economic, educational, cultural—that were to alter that community into something unrecognizable in the next twenty years.  —Anthony Walton

 

GEOGRAPHY OF THE IMAGINATION

BY GUY DAVENPORT

The finest essays on literature and art published by an American writer during the post-war period.  —Wyatt Mason

 

KNEE-DEEP IN WONDER

BY APRIL REYNOLDS

I first read this in manuscript, and then I put my copy in a box to keep so I could sell it for big bucks in my old age and send my grandkids to college. But you, the readers, have so far really let me down. This was one of the best debut novels of recent years, by a charismatic author, backed by a big house that thought it had a huge hit on its hands. Bet you never heard of it. I’m not sure why. It’s accessible and rollicking and tragic. Get yourself a copy, already.  —Jeff Sharlet

 

SECONDHAND SMOKE

BY PATTY FRIEDMANN

The Friedmann comic voice is filled with so much anger, outrage, astonishment, fear, resentment, and unleashed id that we readers nearly fall out of our chairs in wonder and laughter and shock. It’s as if her characters have had to live in and accept a deranged world for so long that their only means of survival is to become even crazier and wilder than anything that comes their way.  —William Caverlee

 

THE DOG STAR

BY DONALD WINDHAM

How this book isn’t more widely appreciated is beyond me. This is a Southern classic waiting to be discovered. Think Holden Caufield in Depression-era Atlanta.  —Marc Fitten

 

FARTHER OFF FROM HEAVEN

BY WILLIAM HUMPHREY

None of Humphrey’s books gets the credit it deserves, but this memoir of a happy East Texas boyhood, and the tragedy that brought it to an end, is his finest. Heartbreak transformed into art by a craftsman at the top of his game.  —John Grammer

 

IN A TEMPLE OF TREES

BY SUZANNE HUDSON

The dark and relentless story of an African-American orphan raised by a Jewish woman and his witnessing of the events leading up to the murder of a young woman at an Alabama hunting lodge.  —Melissa Delbridge

 

JAYBER CROW

BY WENDELL BERRY

Critics don’t respect Wendell Berry’s fiction as much as his essays and poetry. But this was a deeply affecting and unassumingly artful book.  —Bill Friskics-Warren

 

THE CURIOUS SECESSION OF LATTER-DAY CHARLESTON

BY CHARLIE GEER

This strange and hilarious novel of peninsular Charleston’s breaking off and floating out to sea is one crazy book. Part science fiction, part allegory, part social commentary, all of it is true to the condition the South continually finds itself mired in: a history so tired and yet so tangible that we have no choice but to deal with it every day.  —Bret Lott

 

THE IMMACULATE INVASION

BY BOB SHACOCHIS

This exquisitely written, powerful book about Haiti by the Virginia-born National Book Award Winner lays bare American colonialism, the history of slavery and revolt, and the fraught relationship between the U.S. and the first black republic in the “New World.” Shacochis’s prose is hurricane-force, lyrical and ferocious and true.  —Diane Roberts

 

RANEY

BY CLYDE EDGERTON

It’s hilarious and instructive and nuanced and it got the author in trouble with the Southern Baptists, which is usually a sign of a good book.  —John Brummett

 

TRIALS OF THE EARTH: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARY HAMILTON

This is a voice from a rarely heard category from history, a working-class white pioneer who settled the Mississippi Delta in the nineteenth century. Neither an upper-class white account nor a slave narrative, her story is unique and includes, as a bonus, a mystery: the question of the identity of her haunted, secretive English-born older husband.  —Ellen Ann Fentress

 

JUJITSU FOR CHRIST

BY JACK BUTLER

Jujitsu isn’t underrated in the sense that the people who read it don’t get it; rather, it’s that not enough people are reading it in the first place. This is because the novel is bizarrely, criminally, out of print. It would be irresponsible to speculate that it is being kept that way by a shadowy cabal of writers—not just Southerners, either, but American writers generally and a few Swedes as well—who know that their work would seem dim and anemic compared to Butler’s, so I won’t do that. But I will say that there is something to delight or horrify on every page.   —Brannon Costello

 

THE ATTACK ON LEVIATHAN

BY DONALD DAVIDSON

Davidson is the most vastly underrated nonfiction essayist in American history, perhaps due to his later anti-integration stance. If one examines his earlier essays, however, one will discover that Davidson’s writing is cogent, polite, exact, and insightful.   —Chris Green

 

WITNESS TO SORROW: THE ANTEBELLUM AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF WILLIAM J. GRAYSON

Grayson’s work is seldom read, partly because it was written during the Civil War and remained only in manuscript for over a century. However, it is elegantly thoughtful and meditative, and deserves to be better known.  —Michael O’Brien

 


GONE WITH THE WIND

BY MARGARET MITCHELL

I know it makes no sense to call this novel “underrated,” but its complexity is often underappreciated, especially the post-war second half of the novel. I sound condescending to Mitchell, but I think she wrote a much more complex second half of the novel than she knew.   —Michael Kreyling

 

SOUTHERN FRIED PLUS SIX

BY WILLIAM PRICE FOX

It’s nepotism, but it’s the God honest truth.  —Colin Fox

 

DELIVERANCE

BY JAMES DICKEY

The film’s lurid popular history has overshadowed the craftsmanship of Dickey’s taut, meticulous novel. Critics tend to cite disapprovingly its graphic and perhaps hyper-masculine content, and I dislike that the book at times seems to have borrowed a symbolic key from Joseph Campbell’s studies of mythology. Nevertheless, Deliverance is a unique portrait of Southern identity in the crux of history.  —Donn Cooper

 

A CRY OF ABSENCE

BY MADISON JONES

Probably Jones’s best novel, this one was well received when it first appeared in the early ’70s but seems to have slipped out of view of most, save specialists. It remains an unforgettably strong portrayal of the tormented state of denial so much of the white Southern aristocracy experienced in the face of the Civil Rights Movement.  —Madison Smartt Bell

 

THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS

BY CHRIS FUHRMAN

This was Fuhrman’s only book, finished shortly before he died of cancer at the age of thirty, but it is not for that reason alone that it has the quality of a life’s testimony. It’s a spry and irreverent novel, full of trash-talk and good humor, yet also big-hearted, eloquent, and tremendously moving, with a startling clarity of vision that calls attention with each sentence to what would otherwise be forgotten, as if the author could not stop insisting: This is the world as it presented itself to me.  —Kevin Brockmeier


OF LOVE AND DUST

BY ERNEST J. GAINES

I read this novel every year and use it in classes often, and I am always stunned by this entire world recreated in one isolated rural setting, and how an opera of love and hate and revenge is played out in the fields and small houses and dusty roads.  —Susan Straight

 

STONER

BY JOHN WILLIAMS

John Williams wrote three first-rate novels: Stoner, Augustus, and Butcher’s Crossing. Augustus won the National Book Award but is still too little-known. Stoner tells the life story of an unassuming English professor. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful.  —Donald Hays

 

SCISSORS, PAPER, ROCK

BY FENTON JOHNSON

A perceptive, searching novel about a Southern family in the age of AIDS, stretched taut by old attitudes, and haunted by specters of mortality.  —Matthew Pitt

 

THE PINK INSTITUTION

BY SELAH SATERSTROM

Great experimental, dysfunctional-family Southern lit.  —Susannah Felts

 

OXHERDING TALE

BY CHARLES JOHNSON

Is this a slave narrative or a novel of ideas? Johnson has created his own mix in a work that is at once high comedy, rich ideas, and compelling narrative.  —Lolis Eric Elie

 


KINFLICKS

BY LISA ALTHER

Witty, honest, well drawn, and hilarious, a book that needs to be included on any list of revered Southern lit.  —Janna McMahan

 


IN MY FATHER’S ARMS: A TRUE STORY OF INCEST

BY WALTER de MILLY

De Milly’s memoir is an almost unbelievably beautiful narrative recounting unspeakable suffering.  —Chauncey Mabe

 

THE REIVERS

BY WILLIAM FAULKNER

As does Huckleberry Finn for the nineteenth, this comic novel captures all the racial, social, moral, and sexual tensions of the twentieth century.     —M. Thomas Inge

 

WOLF WHISTLE

BY LEWIS NORDAN

Yes, I did edit this one, and thus know all the more how sinfully underrated it is.  —Shannon Ravenel

 

TO MAKE MY BREAD

BY GRACE LUMPKIN

It’s a minor masterpiece, one of the best political novels to come out of the South.  —Richard Gray

 

Click here for the big list of underrated books!

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