To teach English in the South, and particularly to write here, means to hear and occasionally think about one’s predecessors, most notably perhaps Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Although both these writers made the leap from being remembered as “regional writers” by history, both also were very much writers inextricably connected to place, and that place was an American South that is both gone and in Faulkner’s words, not even past.
But it is to O’Connor I turn today, and particularly her famous comment in her 1960 essay on the grotesque in Southern fiction that the South and its people are “Christ-haunted.” As a semi-pro writer and amateur Christian, this makes a great deal of sense to me, and I think crime and noir fiction are areas where this is particularly evident. In his dissertation, Robert B. Parker argued that the private eye hero is a sort of Natty Bumppo after the wilderness has been paved. Likewise, I would suggest that Southern noir is what one gets when the plantations have become shopping malls. Likewise, I think it’s no coincidence that several of the founding fathers of noir (James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Horace McCoy) all had roots in the South.
But moving back to O’Connor, her work reflects her Catholicism, with mystical elements and her declaration that “[F]or me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that.” As a Catholic in Georgia, however, O’Connor was in some respects an outsider adrift in a sea of Southern Baptists, a situation that remains the case today. Even the portions of the South that aren’t primarily Baptist (like Mondoville’s spot of orange in the red of South Carolina) live under a significant Baptist and Evangelical overlay.
This brings us to Jake Hinkson, who does not travel the same road as O’Connor, but can probably wave to her from his path. In particular, it brings us to his forthcoming collection of short stories, The Deepening Shade (Released on 5 Jan 15 from All Due Respect Books). I was already familiar with Hinkson’s work thanks to his searing novel Hell on Church Street, a Thompsonesque work with a Gotterdammerung conclusion. The new collection is a series of explorations of that Christ-haunted South (particularly Arkansas, where several of these stories are set), but unlike O’Connor’s work, the sensibility here holds elements of the Evangelical and Calvinistic. Hinkson’s stories show us a world of the Elect and the Reprobate, with an eye toward the particular agonies of those honest enough to acknowledge that they can’t quite be sure in which camp they belong.
In stories like “The Serpent Box” (a backwoods version of Bergman’s Virgin Spring) and “Our Violence”, we see love and pain under the greatest of duress, and in “Randy’s Personal Lord and Savior”, we meet a man whose salvation may or may not be connected to a particularly heinous act. “Aftermath” shows us the consequence of a fatal act in the mind of a survivor, and “The Empty Sky” is an account of love, guilt, and the life afterward. Each of these, and the other stories in the collection, remember that the writer’s duty is to entertain and enthrall, but they move beyond mere entertainment into the realm of thought and conscience — in short, the territory of art.
Does this mean that Jake Hinkson is a contemporary O’Connor or Faulkner? No, but he is an artist doing significant work, and one deserving of our support. Such should not go without notice.