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The Tragedy of Brady Sims by Ernest J. Gaines

You might never think you have heard of Ernest J. Gaines, but you have; or if you have heard of him, you don’t know why. Gaines is probably best known as the author of “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1973) and “A Lesson Before Dying” (1993). “The Tragedy of Brady Sims” is his latest work and is a novella that takes place in a small town in Louisiana in the late 1950s, maybe early 1960s.

Brady Sims shoots a man in the courthouse in front of everyone and the narrator of this book, a young reporter named Louis Guerin. Sims threatens the two deputies, tells them that the sheriff can pick him up in two hours, and leaves town unharmed. Guerin is assigned to tell a human interest story about Brady Sims, his life and, maybe, what made him kill his own son. To do so, Guerin heads over to Lucas Felix’s barbershop.

Gaines tells “The Tragedy of Brady Sims” through stories told at the barbershop. His ear for dialect is second to none, but it’s Gaines understanding of the soul of a small town and its African-American residents that are the jewels of this novella. One of the interesting narrative techniques Gaines uses in “The Tragedy of Brady Sims” is he places an out-of-towner who is, more times than not, slow on the uptake of the history of the town and its people. Likewise, we as the readers are trying to come up to speed with the names and chronology of events, the out-of-towner whispering in the ear of the reporter asking, “Who is that?” or “What’s going on?”. Eventually, we all catch up to the stories being told in the barbershop, but these are stories told a hundred times in this small town and they are told for the regulars of the barbershop, not the passersby.

Gaines’s “The Tragedy of Brady Sims” is a tale of the forgotten man. Told in a slow Southern pace, Gaines gives us a story of our collective past and is a book much out of place with today. “The Tragedy of Brady Sims” is not just a mere time capsule, but in the times as we strain our eyes to look forward, it’s always good to understand where we came from. Much more than a palate cleanser for today’s wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am mentality, I recommend “The Tragedy of Brady Sims” highly as a meditation of story.

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Kentucky Straight by Chris Offutt

Chris Offutt’s short-story collection “Kentucky Straight” takes most of its readers into an unknown world, a world we may have glimpsed on in TV shows and our own prejudices of Appalachia.  “Kentucky Straight” is set in the hills and hollows of Rocksalt, a fictional Appalachian town in eastern Kentucky.

The stories are stunning in their clarity and honesty. There are outlaw stories of course, but it’s the naturalness of the characters is that attraction, whether the people are criminals or law-abiding folks. In “The Leaving One”, a twelve-year-old’s innocence and, at the same time, his wariness at meeting his grandfather rings with authenticity. Nothing appears contrived. And the short story, by using this meeting as it’s starting point, gives us a beautifully written Boatman’s family history.

“Kentucky Straight” is not filled with trick or gotchas. Any twist that comes is the result of the environment and its people, not some gimmick by a cornered writer. Offutt builds a believable cast with no exploitation of stereotypes; his intent seems to be to praise the misunderstood Appalachian people with their exposed faults and their love of their families and the land. There is tragedy, of course; it’s everywhere in the shadows of the trees and hollows. In these nine stories, Offutt writes of a peoples’ perseverance which we shouldn’t confuse with resignation. Rather it’s a realization that this is their life, not for better or worse, their lives just are.

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