The Kansas City Star Review

Oh, the places you go in Duncan's wild Beluthahatchie

Here's the situation: You're a blues guitarist and a sinner, but hell is nearly full, so you ride the demon train to the next stop. It's a place called Beluthahatchie, a sort of annex to Hades, and the devil is driving around the hot, dusty realm in a 1936 Hudson Terraplane.

You like his car so much you decide to steal it.

Then things get weird.

That's "Beluthahatchie," the imaginative title tale in Andy Duncan's collection of short stories. For lack of a better category, these yarns fall into the "speculative fiction" genre, but Duncan isn't your average sword-and-sorcery fantasist, and his work sure as hell isn't science fiction.

No matter. Forget trying to pigeonhole this author and just enjoy the rides. Duncan, who hails from Alabama, spins his strange fictions from a web of sources ranging from southern Gothic to Shirley Jackson to Edgar Allan Poe to the Delta blues of tortured singers like Robert Johnson.

Johnson, in fact, is the model for the character in the title story, an African-American bluesman and trickster who dies by poison. Consigned to Beluthahatchie, he nevertheless decides things aren't so bleak and tries to get the better of Old Scratch himself.

"Well, boys," John the bluesman muses after arriving in Beluthahatchie, "if the devil's got some powers I reckon I got some, too. I didn't expect to be playing no blues after I was dead. But I guess that's all there is to play now. 'Sides, I've played worse places."

Now that's optimism.

Duncan has a wonderful time with this story and delivers an ending both beautiful and ghostly. Reading him, you're likely to be laughing one moment, in awe the next and perhaps horrified before the tale is done. Few authors can pull off such delicate tonal balances in a short story, although William Faulkner achieved it more than once, most notably in "A Rose for Emily."

Other tales here are more sober but no less effective. "The Executioners' Guild" is one of Duncan's finest efforts: It's a long meditation on the business of putting people to death, an examination of the price one soul might ultimately have to pay for destroying another.

The two executioners—one a traditionalist who swears by the noose, the other an advocate of the newfangled electric chair—engage in what amounts to a long philosophical dialogue regarding the apparent human need for retribution and the ugly dangers of spectacle shoving dignity aside.

One wonders if this shouldn't be required reading for those who would gladly have Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh executed in front of a television audience of millions.

Duncan almost always prefers to work in some historical milieu or another, and his hand is sure in these dominions. "Grand Guignol," for example, features a rather complex narrative structure but never bogs down in its evocation of Le Grand Guignol, the infamous Parisian theater that specialized in sensational and horrific productions from 1905 to 1910.

But easily offended readers are hereby warned: Duncan does not shrink from language that some folks will find troubling. "Beluthahatchie" the story, and much of Beluthahatchie the book, simply would not work without the racial epithets the author employs, and yet in these times, it is almost impossible to read such words without wincing.

Well, it is not Duncan's job to wince or flinch, but to write. Beluthahatchie will satisfy any reader brave enough to handle the strange places Duncan visits, the places between disturbing fantasy and ruthless reality.

—John Mark Eberhart, The Kansas City Star, May 12, 2001


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