- Not Mayberry
An installment of Bottom Dog Press's Appalachian Writing Series, Charles Dodd White's linked story collection Sinners of Sanction County is steeped in grief and regret. While the stories take place in North Carolina, there is no Mayberry here, no Don Knotts, no comedic relief—no relief at all, in fact, for these troubled characters. This is small town Appalachia, where fathers are called "daddies," and White convincingly portrays its culture in these twelve tales.
If it is true that people most remember what they read first and last, then readers will surely recall the opening story "Hawkins's Boy," which begins, "True, Hawkins buried his son more than once that summer. Wild dogs would get at the limbs glowing pale as quartz in the shallow ground, gnawing through the shroud of croaker sacks."
Hawkins, whose wife is deaf and son is prone to seizures, struggles coping with his son's death. One of White's skills, among many, is identifying what the reader assumes will happen, and delivering the unexpected. The ending of "Hawkins's Boy" is testament to that. Other stories feature father and son duos, too: "Controlled Burn," about a father trying to save his father's cabin from a controlled burn due to a weapons cache; "Carrion," in which a father and son routinely capture road kill before authorities have a chance to remove it; and "Killer," wherein a father and son go on a hunting trip.
Though loss permeates every story in some respect, the best stories are those that fully capitalize on the loss of people and the aftermath that ensues. Aside from "Hawkins's Boy," there is "Confederates," which centers on the friendship between the nameless narrator, whose father committed suicide, and his "father's old friend Charlie Jobe," a disabled veteran intent on gambling his VA check to raise enough money to live in a veterans' camp that has "a three thousand dollar community lien." When the pair encounters a group of stranded Confederate reenactors on the way to the casino, the narrator changes their vehicle's tire. And yes, the narrator reveals Charlie's fate by the end, thankfully avoiding ambiguity. "Jack's Gun," meanwhile, focuses on a man whose past continues to haunt both him and those around him.
Additionally, there is "Give Up and Go Home, Jasper"—the only story in present tense—whose narrator watches Jasper deal with gambling and marital problems. "Age of Stone" conveys "McCallister's mission" to "tunnel through Callum Mountain...so that the WPA men could pave the road through, opening up the world to the hillcountry and the hillcountry to it," and, naturally, McCallister's project endures setbacks in the process. Packer is a man looking to avenge his brother in "A World of Daylight," which contains a delightfully awkward conversation between Packer and a boy he has never met. "You ain't a pervert, are you?" the boy asks.
Again, with the exception of "Give Up and Go Home, Jasper," every story in Sinners of Sanction County is told in past tense, speaking, perhaps, to a bygone era free of distractions such as the Internet and ubiquitous smart phones. The effect of this choice is a loss of immediacy, which occasionally diminishes dramatic tension, and this could be problematic for some readers. Call it a missed opportunity. There is more variety with regard to point of view, however, because White utilizes first- and third-person narration alike and regularly employs each.
Plot aside, White's prose is equally impressive. The description is rich yet restrained, as in "Controlled Burn": "His family lived in a beaten box that looked like something that had fallen out of the sky and been kicked across the yard by a mean kid. Wasps jerked back and forth through broken windows and stove-in walls." Or, in "Killer," "The bluffs opened before them, pale and ripped as a broached skullcap. Lichen etched down from the upper rim of palisades across the river and disappeared into the tight mouths of caves." Or an excerpt...