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The Portable Son

by Barrett Hathcock

A Pen and Palette Review

We never knew we could want more than that out of life.—Billy Joel

I love that Barrett Hathcock begins his collection of short stories with this quote. It sets his coming-of-age stories up from the beginning right where they belong—in the hearts and minds of adolescent boys in Mississippi. And not just any teenage boys. Not the boys of Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter Crooked Letter or Mark Childress’ One Mississippi—which are filled with characters from another caste and time—but closer to Hemingway’s Nick Adams in his early stories. Not rural boys or lower-class ruffians, but contemporary (well, 90s-ish, as compared with 50s-ish) upper middle class kids trying to connect the dots between their Mississippi childhoods and their budding careers as they leave home.

It was fun for me to read these stories set in and around the hometown I share with Hathcock (Jackson, Mississippi) and then to meet Barrett at his signing Sunday afternoon. Also fun to meet his wife and kids and learn that we are neighbors here in Harbor Town on the Mississippi River. Barrett is the same age as my oldest son, Jonathan, and I felt a kind of motherly pride in seeing his work and meeting him at the Booksellers of Laurelwood yesterday afternoon.

Fun, also, that the bookstore’s web site said the signing would be at 1:30, one hour before it was actually scheduled. I enjoyed the extra hour having lunch at the Bistro and reading the first three stories in The Portable Son before Hathcock’s signing. I think my favorite is “High Cotton,” but I haven’t even gotten to the title story yet. And I was a bit surprised by “Timber Walking,” which introduced a character one might not expect to find in stories like these, a Siberian log-splitter named Nikolai.

Having just finished Joshilyn Jackson’s fifth novel—A Grown Up Kind of Pretty—it was fun to contrast these Southern writers’ styles and points of view. Jackson writes through the voices of an eclectic group of Southern women (and girls) with a bit of Southern noir not unlike Flannery O’Connor. Hathcock presents the point of view of the men (and boys) in his lighter stories and uses restraint in his colorful but sparse prose. I think a major difference in their writing is that Hathcock is very present in the voice of his narrators, whereas Jackson’s voice as an author remains hidden. I could imagine Hathcock’s short stories as excerpts from a memoir drawn from his own life.

I’m not really a fan of the short story as a genre, but I’m enjoying Hathcock’s stories immensely. I think one reason is that many of them share a protagonist and a common thread, almost like excerpts from a novel, strung together in a delightful collection. So, when one story ends, leaving me wanting more, there actually IS more…. at least for nine stories.

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