cover image New Stories from the South 1997: The Year's Best

New Stories from the South 1997: The Year's Best

. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $12.95 (324pp) ISBN 978-1-56512-175-1

""I say to those who read this volume, let there be peace now about what the South is or isn't.... The `South' is just a great excuse to bring some wonderful artists together to peer deep into the yearnings of the human heart."" As contributor Robert Olen Butler's preface suggests, both newcomers and natives, stalwarts and up-and-comers, show up in these 19 splendid stories, and the quality of their work should overwhelm all geo-historical niggling. For some, place is a central character; for others, a necessary but ethereal backdrop. More constant than any version of Southernness is a preoccupation with mortality. Many of the tales concern characters who, in the face of death, must take stock of their lives. In Patricia Elam Ruff's affecting ""The Taxi Ride,"" we watch 75-year-old Helen as she nurses her husband through his final weeks, then share her exhilaration, grief and anguish when she is befriended by an elderly cab driver. In Marc Vassallo's ""After the Opera,"" the ghost of old love inhabits the body of the living, as a man learns that his widowed mother has secretly married his father's rival colleague. Family estrangements aren't the only distances covered in this collection. Race relations take center stage in several of the stories; so does frustrated passion. Dale Ray Phillips's ""Corporal Love"" gives a brilliant look at the emotion that lingers after a marriage has ended. On a lighter note, Butler's ""Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover"" is a hilarious, touching story about a relationship between a lonely divorcee and an alien she meets in the parking lot of a 24-hour Wal-Mart in Bovary, Ala. Pathos, levity, sarcasm and social commentary mix gracefully in this 11th annual edition. (Sept.)