The Name of the Nearest River

WHEN FLANNERY O’CONNOR insisted that a good short story will resist summary and paraphrase because its mystery and power depend on the reader’s experiencing the author’s creation, she may well have been gazing into a crystal ball and foretelling the work of Alex Taylor. Taylor’s debut collection, The Name of the Nearest River, thwarts any neat categorization. It is realism and tall tale, dirty realism and magical realism, tragedy and comedy. It is North, South, East, and West, the past and the present, and the borderlands in between. It recalls Cormac McCarthy’s dark and violent landscapes, Raymond Carver’s minimalist plots and yearning characters, and Eudora Welty’s photographic eye and comic sensibility. Flowing from the pen of a lesser writer, such confluences might be a wash, and might seem derivative and diffuse, but Taylor has managed to direct these disparate streams into a mighty river. Through his creative vision and technical artistry, Taylor reminds us of the awesome power of a good story well told.

Here are eleven deft portraits of fear and fierceness, loneliness and companionship. Taylor may be at his best in “The Coal Thief,” a tale about a twelve-year-old boy’s instinct and will to survive in the train-tracked woods in the dead of winter. Or for some readers, his art may soar in the book’s opening and title story, a darkly grotesque and comic tale about settling a score on the banks of the Gasping River in the summer light of day. Taylor’s is a precariously balanced world, where merely living “would make somebody fierce,” and yet, as in “We Were Men and the Fire Made Us,” living in it can also kindle one’s yearning to “mend up everything while the world [spins] into flame, to stopper the leaking heart of it all with love.”

Sheer meanness faces a just retribution in “Winter in the Blood,” the collection’s final story. Incited by the wanton shooting of three Charolais heifers, the tale turns quickly into an edgy, cinematic drama of a father and his teen daughter caught in the clutches of two armed men out on a joy killing. One of the story’s most remarkable feats — in a tale full of remarkable feats, by the way — is how the two men’s cold brutality is trumped by the wise tenacity of a cancer victim and the sweet delicacy of a warm vanilla sheet cake. The story’s ending is self-reflexive, the father puzzling over how to recount the twist-and-turn events — how to transform the incredible into something statable and believable — to the police.

Like many of the best southern writers before him, Taylor can see and project rural landscapes through a mythic lens. In “A Courier among Green Trees,” perhaps a reminder of how the past walks among us, Taylor reaches way back into the 1790s to imagine an encounter with the smaller of the murderous Harp Brothers of frontier fame. The tale’s Tory narrator, along with three other men, chase Little Harp on his wounded horse into a cave. What follows is the stuff of legend, “something worth speaking of around other fires and polished tables, in old taverns and smoke rooms” — and something worth opening up and experiencing first-hand on the page.