Book Review : Eryk Pruitt - Townies: And Other Stories of Southern Mischief (2018)
Southern literature had a short revival a couple years ago. Intellectuals and publishing types called it rural noir and whatnot. In an era increasingly fragmented by new media and electronic devices, people were looking for realness in their escapism. Of course, that was all swept down the drain by the election of Donald Trump in 2016, who divided the country in two clans: those who love him (mostly Midwestern folks and Southerners) and those who don’t. But the South neither good nor evil. It’s just a place where folks live and it was in dire need to be rehumanized. I believe Eryk Pruitt’s new short story collection Townies does exactly that and it does it properly.
There are many stories in Townies I would call masterpieces. Town & Gown is the first and perhaps my favorite in the collection. It features a normal Southern man and a college professor debating over the fate of a dog injured by a hit and run driver. The protagonist Horace Moncrief’s practical knowledge based on life experiences and the professor’s theoretical knowledge clash in a potential life-or-death situation. Sure, the professor is clearly a parody of a liberal intellectual but Pruitt proves an interesting point with him: sometimes, a college education isn’t advantage. Sometimes it blinds you situations where instinct and judgement need to take over.
Knockout and Sixteenths are two other short stories I would call masterpieces without hesitation. While they don’t have the same powerful social commentary Town & Gown has, they make up with standout storytelling that eschew crime fiction stereotypes. They constantly redefine your expectations as they go along. The former begins with a found smartphone that evolves into bitter obsession and the latter begins with a sweet, sexy memory only to devolve into brutality, loss and survival. Eryk Pruitt’s always been a crafty storyteller, but he shows in short form a command that few living and working writers can boast to have.
Townies (the story) is a long, original piece that is also worth the price of admission. It’s a Texas story that highlights the peculiar sense of justice prevalent over there without necessarily glorifying it. It has a powerful Hitchcockian edge to it that’ll keep your uncomfortable for its duration. Otherwise, I enjoyed reading classics like Houston and It’s Morning Again in Lake Castor, which I discovered Eryk Pruitt with. The opener November, a mid-century throwback dealing with the JFK assassination panic, was also quite delightful. For all the rough edges of Eryk Pruitt’s characters, he has a way of writing about them lovingly, making them tragically human in inhumane situations.
When I decide to read a short story collection, it is usually for one of the two following reasons: I either love the author already or I’m interested in the overarching theme. In Townies’ case, it was both. But I particularly appreciated how Eryk Pruitt depoliticized the American South in his collection and presented its people for who they are, with their anachronistic sense of justice and the present they seem chained to. Not only it was masterfully told, but it also was earnest and heartfelt. Whether we like it or not, we’re not all that different despite our ideological divides and we should be thankful for a short story collection like Townies which tastefully reminds us of that.