Southern Scribe
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Fiction Review  

The Dry Well
stories by Marlin Barton
Frederic C. Beil, Inc., 2001
ISBN: 929490-07-0


This is a bountiful season for Southern books. First there was Terry Kay’s lyrical treatise Taking Lottie Home, then Pat Cunningham DeVoto’s Out of the Night that Covers Me, then Julia Oliver’s Music of Falling Water.  Now we have Marlin Barton’s gut-wrenching powerful collection of short stories entitled The Dry Well.

A Montgomery writer who has distinguished himself by publishing in such fine journals as Shenandoah, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Sewanee Review and The American Literary Review, Barton’s lead story, “Jeremiah’s Road,” was included in Prize Stories 1994: O’Henry Awards. It is the story of an old country black man struggling in a world where reality is slipping away, seesawing back and forth between violence and fearful imagination.

In the title story, a Confederate soldier haunted by the ravaging memory of anger swelling in his heart and overcoming his actions, deep-seeded guilt at what he’d done and how his actions had been repeated, returns to the home he’d once known. Instead of a home he finds a place: brick steps and two old wells, one with water, the other dry, a place where he had hidden once, years ago, hiding in the dark that was black as a blind person’s world. After this story was published in The Sewanee Review, Barton was awarded the prestigious Andrew Lytle Prize.

Barton’s world is the Black Belt of west Alabama, small town, country doings, and he knows all the smells, the speed of a mule’s gait, the twitch of a cow’s tail, and the heat of a long afternoon in the sunlight in a cottonfield. Barton writes about the people of his land with an insider’s vast knowledge. His dialog is right on the money. What begins sometimes as a simple statement, an exchange of words about crops or the weather, turns quickly to a wildfire of emotions.

Often times, as in “The Cemetery,” the edge of Barton’s world is one of tense, beautifully woven sensitivity, like finely woven lace that has yellowed with age. In this instance, a young woman who has recently lost a baby struggles to find some meaning and a new feeling in life with her husband who works at the local paper mill. Then she visits the old lady, Lydia, who gives her words that resonate through her life, her future.

The author’s words tingle: “She was taking a walk, alone, and had worked her way up a knoll through the scattered pines and cedars and the bare hardwoods that rose toward the November sky, when she came upon the faded marble and granite stones. They looked like gray and white ghosts, she thought, rising suddenly from the cold ground, nearly hidden there among the thick, dark trunks of the trees. She felt oddly as though she had made some sort of discovery,. a discovery of things that had lain awkwardly in silence and in time.”

Like in most communities in rural Alabama, Barton’s people are related by family or by marriage or by circumstance. His folks go back through the ages, connected by history, if not by talk or not-so-idle gossip, like the tales of the conjure woman who lives down on the Black Fork or the refined Caroline Reed who lives in a small house with her crippled brother after having to sell their fine old family home with its columns, marble mantels, splendid antiques.

In Riverfield there are the Conrads, the Andersons, related way back to the Confederate soldier Rafe Anderson, the Reeds, and the Teclaws, a family that goes back to the first days when settlers came to this part of Alabama. There’s Sarah Ann Rutledge, a widow who is the caretaker of the Episcopal church, and her son John who “rang the bell each Sunday and served as altar boy.”

Barton’s people are God-fearing, church-going folks. They are hard-cussing, beer-drinking racists. They are poor blacks suffering on a land where they’ve been suffering for generation after generation.

These stories are rich with people of the solid red clay. These stories do not simply tell what happened, how it happened, when it happened, they vibrate with a history that is still alive today, a remembrance of things past that affect the characters who walk and talk through these pages. They shimmer with life through the words and phrases of a world-class writer.

Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews

© 2001 Southern Scribe Reviews