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Book Review - Good Southern lit ain't hard to find

Decatur Book Festival showcases fresh voices of contemporary Southern authors

Flannery O'Connor's family farm and home, Andalusia, has been open to the public since 2004. Most days, people are coming and going down the long gravel drive and parking near the old water tower, not far from the cow barn. They walk up the front stairs where O'Connor once posed with her crutches and pea chicken. Inside, her bedroom sits just to the left of the front door, mocked up to look like the writer may have just stepped away from the typewriter for a minute's rest. The refrigerator she bought with money from the film rights to "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," a beautiful appliance, attracts quiet admiration in the kitchen. If the visitors squint their eyes and don't pay too much attention to the gift shop, where they can buy bumper stickers that say "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," it might feel like time has stood still.

While the preservationists have done a damn fine job stopping the clocks on that farm, though, the rest of the world (and Southern literature with it) has moved on. The Decatur Book Festival might be Andalusia's inverse — a place where nothing stands still, hundreds of authors read in constant, simultaneous schedules, and promotional cartoon monsters talk about their favorite books. It might not be as bucolically charming as Andalusia, but the DBF has, among many other things, a good cross section of authors that are helping define contemporary Southern lit, and reminding us how much time has passed since the Andalusia's heyday.

Preston Allen's ("Fiction from the Hip," Sat., 10 a.m.) recent novel Jesus Boy is populated with deeply spiritual Southerners, a subject O'Connor certainly wrote plenty about, but it plumbs their sexual depths with fearless clarity. Elwyn, a young piano player at the Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walker Upon the Waters, falls in love with a much older woman, a widow named Sister Morrisohn. Their love is inexhaustible, as is a web of cheating partners and orgasmic holy ghost rollers who speak in playfully blasphemous sentences, including "Thank God for Brother Morrisohn and his ultrawhite false teeth," and "I've got the Holy Ghost penis in her!" Allen's real accomplishment is achieving comic energy without satire, without drawing mere exaggerations.

The godless criminals in John Brandon's ("Fiction from the Hip," Sat., 10 a.m.) novels aren't lurking in the corners of the pages, waiting to stick a gun in the face of a hapless protagonist — they are the hapless protagonists. In his debut, Arkansas, Swin and Kyle are drug runners not because they're heartless thugs, but because it seems to be the inevitability of their lives, a headlong tumble of events that's left the illicit job as the only understandable option. The protagonist of Citrus County, Brandon's second and best novel, is more psychologically complex. Toby kidnaps a girl not because he wants to hurt her, but because he can't control the impulses that make him want to ruin his own life. Brandon's characters aren't Christ-haunted as much as they're crap-haunted, surrounded by Styrofoam boxes of congealed Cracker Barrel and cheap plastic flashlights from the dollar store and other refuse of late capitalism.

Owing and acknowledging a debt to predecessors can be a good thing. Bill Cotter's novel Fever Chart is deeply influenced by John Kennedy Toole's portrayal of the Crescent City in A Confederacy of Dunces, which is exactly what he'll be talking about during his discussion "Influenced by Dunces" (Sat., 12:30 p.m.). One could trace a line from Allen's use of narrative voice to Toni Morrison and William Faulkner before her. Brandon has had a number of comparisons to O'Connor herself, though not enough has been said about his debt to the late Barry Hannah.

Hannah, if anyone, knew how hard it would be to escape O'Connor's long shadow. Harry, the hero of his debut novel Geronimo Rex, beats an ornery peacock to death with a stick — not a subtle allusion. Better to kill the peacock than pretend you are one, he seemed to be saying. Pity the people who go looking for the next O'Connor at this year's festival — they'll only find new voices who aren't writing anyone's novels but their own. For their disappointments, they can visit an outpost of Andalusia (the foundation will have a booth at the festival) and buy a bumper sticker that says "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."

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