Book Review - Southern comfort

Best-selling author and National Public Radio commentator Bailey White speaks in a throaty but quavering drawl that’s so distinctive, you can imagine her spinning leisurely yarns for hours on a front porch in her hometown of Thomasville, Ga. Her voice can be a little misleading, however. White sounds so grandmotherly that a listener may underestimate her as merely quaint, when her writing can reveal unexpected precision and perceptiveness.

White visits the Margaret Mitchell House on Dec. 4 to read from her new collection, Nothing With Strings. The book presents 13 so-called “Holiday Stories” White has written and read for NPR as an annual tradition around Thanksgiving (many of which are available in text or audio form on the NPR website). Only a few of the stories directly involve the holidays, but their bittersweet tone and themes of family friction and love lost generally fit the mood of the wintry season. Many involve Alzheimer’s disease, most heartbreakingly in “Meals-on-Wheels,” in which an elderly shut-in blossoms under the care of a Meals-on-Wheels delivery woman who seems too good to be true.

White’s fiction walks a line between romanticizing life in small Southern towns and capturing its foibles with sly wit. “What Would They Say in Birmingham?” offers a hilariously accurate portrayal of a Southern Alabama town remade with faux-rustic bourgeois touches: “Big tubs of geraniums lined the sidewalks, a vacant lot was turned into a pocket park and now after just one year Florinna was hovering on the edge of cute.” An old-timer who works in a hardware store even becomes an unwitting part of the town’s “re-branding,” although he reveals emotions that go deeper than Florinna’s new residents want to acknowledge.

At times, White’s own fiction hovers too close to the edge of cute. The book’s title story takes it name from a woman who has her heart broken by a banjo player and develops a dislike of stringed instruments. A chance encounter with a local eccentric who plays the spoons gives her a new – and awfully convenient – lease on life. For the most part, however, White avoids too sweet, overly embroidered portraits of the South, notably in “The Telephone Man,” a decades-spanning, sharply detailed depiction of unrequited love that wouldn’t feel out of place in Anton Chekhov’s Russia.

White tends to be generous to her characters, even the biddies, gossips, fussbudgets and contemporary control freaks. “The Green Bus” turns out to be a surprising exception when a pair of modern-day hippies overstay their welcome at a nostalgic nurse’s home. White harshes on the hippies more than probably any other characters in the book, and for an instant, it’s like listening to NPR and having someone spin the tuning knob to a station right of the dial. Like most of her creations, White refuses easy stereotyping.