Rivers exercise a strange pull on the human imagination; they work their way into every art form, from Bernini’s Renaissance sculptures of the great flows of Europe to Mikhail Sholokhov’s social-realist novels of Cossack life along the Don to Basho’s haiku celebrating the waterways of northern Japan. In this country no region has taken to rivers quite like the South: there is scarcely a Southern novel or song in which the Mississippi or the Atchafalaya or the Sewanee or some other flood does not figure somehow.

William Mills’ Properties of Blood, a book of short stories that are set in the central-southern states of Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, continues the tradition. Its characters have dark waterways at their shoulders; their conversations are punctuated by ripples and the ker-plunking of errant frogs; their days are marked by fishing trips and cold beers under bankside groves. Properties of Blood continues another tradition, too: the unremitting gloominess for which so much Southern writing is known.

Mills’ people are alternately professors, medical professionals, and what it is now politically incorrect to term whitetrash types with no visible means of support. All his women have large breasts (the one fixation Mills exhibits in this collection, the narration of which is largely neutral in tone and vastly more bookish and intellectual than his characters themselves), many of them wear stretch pants and bouffant hairdos, and they maybe possess a high school diploma between every two or three of them. Just about all, male or female, wellheeled or dirt-poor, are downright miserable.

How could they not yield gloom? But for all that. Mills knows how to tell a story. The collection’s opening, “Sweet Tickfaw Run Softly, Till I End My Song,” is an effective gaze into the emotional abyss of divorce and the subsequent adjustment of altering old habits to the rhythms of new partners, of raising children that are not one’s own, of averting the curious questions of family and friends. Mills’ words are well chosen and full of reference, even if they sometimes peek into corners that aren’t open to view in polite company: “Though Carlisle had no children, he thought he understood Lot’s difficulties with his daughters. Like most men, as he had gotten older he had to account for his lust for girls who had not yet crossed the Greenwich Mean Line of Womanhood.” Although in this and other stories Mills tends to stack epigrammatic sentences one atop the other like loose boards, he surely holds your attention.

This is a book that admits little of the existence of cities, and thus a pleasant rural departure from the usual run of claustrophobic cosmopolitanism found in so many collections of short fiction. Mills’ “Belle Slough” is one of the best hunting stories to have appeared in a long while, ranking near Hemingway, Tom McGuane, and Jim Harrison’s best moments, perfectly evoking the feel of a Southern hardwood forest. In the religiously charged “An Imitation,” Mills offers a superb (and nostalgia-inducing, for anyone who grew up in the South as I did) depiction of a Sunday dinner in Dixie, with its mounds of meats and fowl, five kinds of vegetables and as many pies, a “hummock of rice, and a quivering mound of cranberry jelly looking nervous before what was to come.” At the end of the mouth-watering tale one doesn’t even mind so much Mills’ likening of the meal to a medieval Passion play, although the point is a little forced. “A Marquis” is a superb inquiry into unschooled avarice and crushed ambition as seen in the sorry life of a Cajun riverside restaurateur, as authentically rendered as a Walker Percy hero.

William Mills knows the territory whereof he writes; this is not the product of a transplanted Ivy Leaguer at Louisiana State, but of a homeboy. His stories resonate with the right detail, such as this spot-on description of the Mississippi Delta in wintertime: “In this flat country there were no wild mountains unchanged by the seasons, nor even ant snow to cover the dead ocherous land. What broke the dullness were the open sores of greasy-walled filling stations cluttered with piles of old tires and tubes and their ESSO signs that flapped in the February wind.” Those stories are populated by real people in whose kitchens you can smell gumbo cooking, in whose voices you can hear the twang of the old Scottish lowlands, in whose lives you can sense the weight of history—and always the tug that the nearby rivers ceaselessly exert.


[Properties of Blood, by William Mills (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press) 112 pp., $19.95]