“It is a hard task to treat what is common in a way of your own.” -Horace

Jill McCorkle: The Cheer Leader; Algonquin Books; Chapel Hill, NC; $15.95.

Jill McCorkle: July 7th; Algonquin Books; Chapel Hill, NC; $17.95.

Louis Rubin is easily the most respected and celebrated scholar of modern Southern literature, but it will never be said of him that he was a timid academic. The founding of a new publishing house, Algonquin Books, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina—a long way from New York City—was an act of steely courage alloyed with sheer brass.

He’s a gambling man, Rubin, and, as if to underscore this truth, he brought out two first novels by the same author at the same time. Didn’t publish one and wait to see how it was received. No letter went out saying, “Sorry, Jill, but sales of The Cheer Leader were not strong enough to war rant publication of July 7th.” He rolled them bones and came up flush. The McCorkle books have enjoyed both critical and commercial success.

It’s more than luck, though. Rubin has a discerning eye for certain qualities in Southern writing: freshness, humor, sharply drawn characters, authentic detail and plenty of it, and a sly toughness of observation. His own fiction exhibits these qualities, and he has encouraged them in the students in his creative-writing classes. Among literary partisans of the South, Rubin has got to be one of the least sentimental in his tastes.

And that’s a good thing because Rubin is now in a position to become one of the most influential shapers of the destiny of Southern letters. Algonquin books get good national distribution to the shops and haul down reviews in the important national journals. There has probably never been another Southern trade publishing house with such consistent advantage. Too bad that Algonquin didn’t come into existence a bit sooner; it would have been the ideal house for writers like William Goyen, Eve Shelnutt, and Heather Ross Miller.

But let us be thankful for what we have. The Cheer Leader and July 7th well deserve their success and celebrity, and surely nothing will detract from these if we observe that both novels fit comfortably into the newest tradition in Southern fiction, a tradition that might be described as being fetched out of Leota’s purse.

Leota, of course, is the garrulous beautician in Eudora Welty’s short story “Petrified Man.” That story opens with Leota asking her customer, Mrs. Fletcher, to get a cigarette out of Leota’s purse.

Mrs. Fletcher gladly reached over to the lavender shelf under the lavender-framed mirror, shook a hair net loose from the clasp of the patent-leather bag, and slapped her hand down quickly on a powder puff which burst out when the purse was opened.

‘Why, look at the peanuts, Leota!’ said Mrs. Fletcher in her marveling voice. 

‘Honey, them goobers has been in my purse a week if they’s been in it a day. Mrs. Pike bought them peanuts.’ 

It’s all there, the pungent and faintly repugnant detail, the belligerent vulgarity, the relentless concern with minutiae, the extremely close focus, the sincerely ugly tackiness. It is all expressive, gives us a world of information about lower-middle-class values as well as about individual personalities, and sets a raucous and slightly irritating comic tone. 

Miss Welty didn’t exactly invent this kind of writing, but she has done it so well that we find its influence wide spread in the current generation of female Southern writers. Flannery O’Connor could do this sort of thing to perfection, and so can Bobbie Ann Mason, Anne Tyler, Joan Williams, Lee Zacharias, Lee Smith, Candace Flynt, and Jill McCorkle.

Here, for a random example, is only part of a paragraph from July 7th: 

It had gotten to where all of her days and nights were near about the same-get up and go to Hair Today Gone Tomorrow where she is the owner and fully trained electrologist, perform her time-consuming, tedious professional skill, then come home and wait around for Harold, who very rarely showed up in time for dinner. Then by the time that Harold, Jr. (who looks just like big Harold except for the fact that he’s a little jug-eared) was sound asleep with his little plastic E.T. doll watching over him from the night stand, and Patricia was asleep with her transistor radio blaring away beneath her pillow, she was pooped out, too pooped to sleep actually, and she’d say ‘loping through la la land with Juanita Suggs Weeks.’

But there is a singular and important difference between the way Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor employ such accurately tedious detail and the way our later novelists use it. In Welty and O’Connor the intention is clearly satiric; the reader is expected to judge the taste, intelligence, and ethical values of the characters by the inescapable trashiness of their daily lives and to find them lacking. Tacky detail depicted moral morons or moral innocents.

But when we come to Smith and Zacharias, and especially to Jill Mc Corkle, the purpose has changed from satire to what we might regard as a sort of photorealism. These K-Mart details , are no longer comically indicative; they are the ultimate terms in which these petty lives are lived. Cellophaned sandwiches, Conway Twitty songs, “beaver books,” women’s day-glo slacks do not now distinguish even economic classes; the poor and the wealthy alike inhabit a cultural penury as bleak as any Siberia. Satiric tone diminishes when such objects are de picted as ends in themselves because they become impervious to judgment, unless the authors clearly mean to condescend-as the new writers care fullv do not.

Is it possible that the newest Southern fiction is the first truly classless literature in America? Traditional Southern literature, represented in modem times by writers like Faulkner, Warren, Ellen Glasgow, and Peter Taylor, was finely class conscious. Class consciousness was one of its main strengths, and one which allied it with traditional European literature, with the classical novel of manners. And quite apart from economics, the existence of a spiritual aristocracy was acknowledged; there is nobility in some of Faulkner’s poor Blacks as well as in some of his wealthy planters.

The new books describe no spiritual nobility whatsoever. Certainly Jill Mc Corkle describes none. The closest she conies—and it is a long way off—is in the drawing of a simple “nice guy” like Pat Reeves in The Cheer Leader. But even the “nice” people in McCorkle’s work share in the schlock cultural values of all the other not-so-nice people, and it is difficult to see how they manage to come by their minor but basic decencies.

This depiction depends upon a relentless cynicism, as if the author approves, or has at least accepted, the morality of her characters. The teen aged murderers in July 7th get off scot-free not because they belong to prominent families, but because no body gives a damn who lives or dies. Jo Spencer, the one literate character in either novel, we are supposed to see as crazy. Lee Smith says that “Jill McCorkle has left the old stereotypes dead under the magnolias,” but The Cheer Leader—which is dangerously close in conception and treatment to Smith’s own Black Mountain Breakdown—comes near, with its new but immediately recognizable characterizations, to an easy use of current stereotypes. Our present generation of novelists is building condominiums on Tobacco Road.

But as long as the approach is new, it’s pretty fresh, and McCorkle is enormously skillful with it. Her first books are already expert, and if she can learn to treat her characters in their spiritual and intellectual aspects, she has an important future. But we will have to see if she believes these aspects exist.

Algonquin Books is the best possible place to watch her development. cc