One of the strange things about reading this book is that you become increasingly both enamored with the cultural moment and confused as to what it meant. It was a raucous lapse in traditional Southern conservatism, but also largely a branding strategy. This is partly why “progressive country” always sounded like an oxymoron, but then, if anything, the paradox is what gave it its power.
The genesis of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is well-known. In the summer of 1936, James Agee and Walker Evans completed an assignment, given to them by Fortune, to interview and photograph tenant farmers in Alabama, but the story was killed. This was the best outcome: Agee turned his notes from the trip into something else entirely.
Karen Russell's collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove, her newest book after the 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist Swamplandia!, is a procession of unlikely scenarios. A vampire in the title story experiences immortality through the lens of an endless relationship with his wife; a young boy hoping to help his homesteading parents prove their claim on the land is met by a grimly familiar stranger; a massage therapist finds herself shifting a veteran's combat memories by manipulating his tattoos. Over and over again, Russell places her characters in contact with a literal manifestation of their fears, desires, and dreams. The internal is made external, the surreal imbued with the reality of sincere feeling.
In his first book of literary nonfiction, David McConnell's approach is effective because it's not academic: through extensive research, he's crafted engaging narratives, each populated by characters that demand our attention. We owe each killer the same care and consideration we afford the characters in our favorite novels, remembering that they are nothing if not reflections of ourselves, our culture.