Interzone Review

In his book about The Basement Tapes, the private recordings Bob Dylan and the Band made in 1967, after the outraged reaction to their electrified tour of the previous year, Greil Marcus hit upon an enduring metaphor for the mysterious gothic dramas depicted in American folk music. They came, Marcus wrote, from the Invisible Republic, a place of unwritten traditions and enduring but infinitely malleable tragedies, a place, like its music, "both transparent and inexplicable," a place invoked not only by the folk revival which many felt Dylan and the Band had betrayed, but from the civil rights movement, "a kingdom where suffering and injustice, freedom and right, were coin of the realm."

That's precisely the place invoked by the stories collected in Beluthahatchie and Other Stories (Golden Gryphon, $23.95, with an introduction by Michael Bishop, and an afterword by John Kessel), the first collection (and first book) by Andy Duncan, a new writer who, like Dylan, gathers up traditional materials and twists them into something new. For Duncan is one of those rare writers who arrives with his voice fully formed: every one of these eleven stories is indelibly permeated by it.

Like Howard Waldrop, an admitted influence, Duncan mines the half-forgotten interstices of history for his material with a magpie's eye for the telling detail, although with one exception Duncan's stories are not alternate histories but deeply felt evocations of lost or half-forgotten times and places and incidents. A good half are set in Duncan's native South: "Beluthahatchie," in which a blues singer tweaks the Devil's tail in a suburb of Hell; "Lincoln in Frogmore," inspired by a naive painting of a mythical Civil War incident; "The Executioner's Guild," about an itinerant executioner who can hear the thoughts of the condemned; the depression-era story of a singer too pure to be recorded in "Liza and the Crazy Water Man." In these stories, in "The Map of the Homes to the Stars," a lovely, lonely tale of regret, and in "Fortitude," the sympathetic invocation of General George Patton's derangement, involving futile attempts to change history in a life lived twice over, Duncan writes straight from the heart of the Invisible Republic (I'd like to think that the Model-A Ford in which the narrator of "Liza and the Crazy Water Man" rode with his fellow musicians "a hundred miles of dirt roads and mud tracks to get to some crossroads in the middle of nowhere" was the same Model-A Kentucky musician Dock Boggs, one of the subjects of Greil Marcus's The Invisible Republic, recalled riding over a mountain to make some money in the neighbouring town).

Duncan is equally impressive in his depiction of the first (silent) movie about the Titanic disaster in "Saved," the trial of the corpse of a medieval Pope in "From Alfano's Reliquary," the multi-stranded intrigue in a 1920s Parisian theatre in "Grand Guignol," and the twist-in-the-tale homage to Poe in "The Premature Burials." His absolute and precise assumption of voice is more important in his stories than the fantasy tropes concealed in their grain. The pleasure to be had, and it is deep and abiding, is not the neat twist or the unexpected resolution (most of the stories, told in recollection by narrators at the edge of events, are virtually without plot), but to hear these citizens of the Invisible Republic speak clearly and truly about lost histories and forgotten places in voices as endearingly American as Bob Dylan or Dock Boggs or Huckleberry Finn.

—Paul J. McAuley, Interzone, April 2001


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