Uke Rivers Delivers, R.T. Smith’s latest book of short stories, is an extraordinary collection, for both the range and originality of the voices. These narrators range in age from young to elderly; eccentric would not be an unkind term to use in describing them, including the murderer and the pyromaniac. The pyromaniac is the narrator of “Blaze,” but I leave it to the reader will be left to find the murderer.
These are stories to which one will want to return, in part for the pleasure of voice in such passages as: “I would like to see her chewed and spit out by God. Daddy says it’s a rule not to suffer a witch to live, but Daddy wouldn’t know a witch if she was cackling and stirring afterbirth and rabbit crap in a kettle.” [“Jesus Wept”] Or of entering the world called up in this: “The hummingbirds have gone off for the night, and John Rose and me are under the catawba tree drinking co-colas, telling boo stories and writing our names in lightning-bug jelly on a slate from the barbecue pit. It is good to write your name in fire even if it fades quicker than the taste of soda, which you can never quite call up when you’re in bed after your prayers. We have a whole jarful harvest so we can do it again and again. When the letters disappear, we close our eyes and make like we’re going too, escaping this sleepy-headed place.” [“Razorhead the Axeman’]
Several of these stories are related to the Civil War, such as “I Have Lost My Right” and “Trousseau” The latter is a framed first-person narrative. As the two travel by south by train to visit the gravestone of Jim, who “could thread a needle by the light of a goldfinch at midnight,” a grandfather tells his grandson stories of the war, in which Jefferson Davis is a cross dresser.
Not many readers would turn away from a story that opens, “I shouldn’t be telling you this: The bird that chirps always draws fire. Still I was born to crow. The stolen mummy was in my garage all week…” The mummy in question is “Little Sorrel” General Stonewall Jackson’s horse. No frat-boy, but a college professor, the narrator is a Civil War re-enactor who hears commands from the General Jackson to bury his horse, and, remarkably, carries out the plan.
Another of the many memorable voices is that of Miss Sibby, of “Docent,” who, in giving a tour of the Lee Chapel on Washington and Lee University Campus, slides from the subject of the tour to her own life—and then moves back again to the matter of the tour. This is no ordinary docent; how out of the ordinary, however, we learn only at the end of her narration. A selection for National Public Radio’s Symphony Space, “Docent” drew much laughter from the audience.
The power of music is a recurring theme, appearing in the title story, “Uke Rivers Delivers,” “Tube Rose” and “Razorhead the Axman.” In all of these stories, music becomes a destructive force. Uke, who “quit rising at three feet six inches” tells us about his experience playing in church: “The notes come up around me like a caul, and I couldn’t see clearly. The whole world was a red sound. Then everybody in the pews commenced to shiver and weep, and when I hit the last chorus, I swear to you the overhead lights was blinking and flickering in time to my strings. It was awful, and afterwards not many folks came up to thank me.”
The appeal of these stories is immediate, but, unlike slick fiction, the delight deepens on re-reading. In short this is the sort of collection that gives Southern Fiction its good name: its seeming ease with brilliance of language, not unexpected in a poet of R.T. Smith’s range, is matched in its creation of a brood of characters for whom we willingly suspend our disbelief.
R.T. Smith. Uke Rivers Delivers. Yellow Shoe Fiction, Louisiana State University Press, 2006. pp. 142. $16.95.
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- my new watch broke
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Per Contra Spring 2007