A Master Story Teller

Roy Peachey

Tim Gautreaux, Waiting for the Evening News: Stories of the Deep South (Sceptre, 2010).

Tim Gautreaux is an author who deserves to be better known. The author of three novels, he has also written beautifully crafted short stories about the Deep South, as the subtitle of Waiting for the Evening News describes it, which immediately puts us in mind of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. However, while it is true that Gautreaux has been greatly influenced by O’Connor and considers himself “to be a Catholic writer in the tradition of Walker Percy”, what he gives us is significantly and powerfully new. His redemptive tales encompass aspects of life that most modern literature simply avoids.

Like both Percy and O’Connor, Gautreaux writes wonderful dialogue and has an acute sense of place, but rather than describe violence acting as a means of grace, as O’Connor so often did, he tends to see moments of crisis as opportunities for hopeful intervention.

In the title story of Waiting for the Evening News, for example, he writes about Jesse McNeil, a chemical train driver who “was fifty years old today, and [who] wanted to do something wild and woolly, like get half-lit and pull the chemical train, known by enginemen as the ‘rolling bomb’, up to the Mississippi line on time for a change.” When the train derails, causing a human and environmental catastrophe, McNeil panics, runs away and watches from a distance, observing “a catastrophe that would have happened even if he had been stone-sober and riding the rails with a Bible in his back pocket.”

As the story unravels, McNeil gradually faces up to his own culpability and the reader learns with him. At first he denies any responsibility for the crash but, as layers of prejudice and selfishness are stripped away, “he now wondered whether the townspeople were right in exposing his drunkenness, whether he might have noticed something wrong with his train had he been completely sober.”

"Waiting for the Evening News" is a story about redemption, in which the Catholic priest who picks McNeil up when he is hitch-hiking away from the crash plays a pivotal role, but in other stories Gautreaux’s Catholicism is much more implicit. In "Good for the Soul", we are told that "Sometimes saving a soul was like catching a dragonfly. You couldn't blunder up to it and trap it with a swipe of the hand." The same could be said of Gautreaux's writing: he never engages in a crude battering of the reader’s defences.

What makes Gautreaux’s work distinctive is its humanity, his insistence that change is possible. He does not shy away from the problems that poverty brings but he focuses as much on hope as on despair. Realism has dominated fiction for the last two hundred years but the trouble with realism is that it is not wholly realistic. There is very little sustained happiness in fiction: there is a great deal of misery. But for Gautreaux misery is never the last word.

“Where are the short stories,” he writes,

about the small successes that people have dealing with their problems? Well, they're not out there because they're hard as hell to write without making them seem simple-minded or clichéd or insipid or sentimental. The most frightening thing in the world to an intelligent writer is sentimentality. He doesn't want a molecule of it in his fiction. But I think if you read enough and you understand how to blend humor and irony and the right tone in with the bad stuff, you can write a story that carries an emotional load yet is not sentimental in the least.

Existential angst is not Gautreaux's thing. In "Deputy Sid's Gift", for example, the first person narrator finds himself drawn into the orbit of a local alcoholic who has no interest in kicking his drinking habit. However, as the narrator gradually learns, this does not let him (the narrator) off the hook. As Deputy Sid explains in the story's last line, "we couldn't do nothing for him but we did it anyway."

Walker Percy once wrote that “If a story does not deal with a moral question, I don't think it's much of a story.” Tim Gautreaux clearly agrees. The good news for us is that, despite what our culture might want us to believe, such an approach doesn’t detract from the splendour of the fiction. It enhances it, is a fundamental part of it, and shows us the way that literature could go if only we gave it a chance.

Roy Peachey teaches in the South of England. He is currently a doctoral student at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne.