I first read Rusty Barnes’ Mostly Redneck last year. My intentions were to write a review at that time, but, in all seriousness, I just needed to recover and read it again, I believe, in order to think more clearly on the stories in this collection.
You see, the first time I read the book, I froze up. My fingers would just hover above the keys of my computer, my brain in overdrive trying to convince my inner storyteller that I was worthy enough, had enough to say, that it made sense to even sit down to work.
If that sounds like overkill, then so be it. It’s the truth. And the truth’ll stand when the world’s on fire.
Gradually, I found myself, my voice again. Barnes had pulled me into his fictive world so fully, so expertly, for a time I only wanted to read his sentences again and again and ponder how the trick was pulled off, where the lady in the box had vanished to.
The fact that I’m late to the game in talking about this powerful collection of stories is not lost on me. But having now read them again, I found I learned more than before – about craft, about struggle and hurt and triumph and, most importantly, about humanity. The stories in Mostly Redneck show us humanity again. Not the kind of bitter or bored opinions we see daily on the national news or overhear in grumbles at local places of business, but the true human soul alive in all of us whether we’re good, bad or indifferent.
Within ten minutes of reading, I stopped and placed the book in my lap after reading the second sentence of the second story, “The Howling”, partly a coming-of-age story and partly an examination of our animal nature versus our capacity to care for others . I read that second sentence again: “The sky outside was the color of an old dog’s mouth.” As expected, Barnes was going to be handing me moments of prose that had been worried over, worked at and polished. Words that would unfold into stories just as original as those smaller choices, just original because of those smaller choices.
The very best writers, I’ve believed for some time now, will work in that way – sentence by sentence. And it can be a huge undertaking. Barnes is without question one of our best at this, and someone who makes it look effortless in the meantime.
Take this section from “Where Water Fails” in which Richard and Maggie face a tough decision after learning a child is on the way, something not in anyone’s original plans for their marriage. Maggie has just told Richard and his reaction is to wonder aloud if the doctor in
takes care of this sort of thing anymore.
With this, Maggie makes a decision of her own. Walking to a nearby creek, she strips herself
of her pants and, finding a stick, perches on a rock in the middle of the
stream. Richard approaches, apologetic
and concerned, and is stopped by Maggie’s outstretched palm before opening her
“If you think it’s nothing. You come do it.” She strips stray branches from the stick in her hand and spreads her legs, offers the stick to him with one hand. It looks like a knitting needle. Richard can feel his breath come harder. “You come fucking do it.”
Arranged in three parts, the eighteen stories that make up Mostly Redneck move from the rural area of
which Barnes grew up to the less regional landscapes and circumstances,
something Barnes has shown in past interviews he enjoys doing, rather than
being considered an Appalachian writer and nothing beyond that label.
More often considered a writer and poet of Appalachian subject matter, in the second and third sections of Mostly Redneck, we learn differently or see our expectations met, and fast.
In the story “When Sylvester Dances”, Barnes tackles what I consider one of the hardest topics to approach in fiction – that of Alzheimer’s disease, and that subject without the Intro to Writing type of sentiment too often smeared across pages handed to professors with trembling hands. In Barnes’ story there is almost a celebration of man’s life, Sylvester, who confuses his granddaughter’s boyfriend with an old army buddy, mistakes his fuddled mind as having had too many beers with the guys, an aged man of the world who is currently living in 1942 and wants only to “go see Glenn Miller at the Tropicana.”
Barnes also brings the poignant slow grief of family into focus with skill in the story, as well.
“His daughter Judith and his wife Esther want him to sit up and pay attention to something, want desperately for him to weave a way through the barely translucent wall age has created between him and the rest of the world.”
And by the conclusion of the story, we are still with Sylvester while he dances across the floor of his youth, even as his end is near, even while his wife “buries her head in her hands” at the news.
“…Sylvester’s feet are tapping slightly against the metal rail of the bed, his fingers thrusting up and down in time, and they all gather, continue to gather, till there’s a small crowd, crying and laughing and panicking all at the same time, because it’s 1942, and when Sylvester dances, the world, by God, pays attention.”
Barnes takes what other writers might toss aside as trivial or sentimental and brings those dismissed notions to the highest caliber of prose in Mostly Redneck. I’ve seen few other writers who can make words jump through rings of fire with as much ease and give us the circus that is our lives in a way that makes perfect sense to anyone lucky enough to pick up this book.