Soul of the River

A Review of Alex Taylor’s The Name of the Nearest River

The Name of the Nearest River: Stories
By Alex Taylor
Sarabande Books (Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature) 2010, 184 pages
Reviewed by Laurence Stacey

In Southern literature, there are few authors whose debut is so poignant that it adds a new dimension to the genre. The work of Alex Taylor is one clear example. In The Name of the Nearest River, Taylor seamlessly weaves vibrant prose into raw observations of life in rural Kentucky. This collection of 11 short stories depicts the hardships, desires, and fears of characters trying to survive in the impoverished rural south.

Taylor’s use of scenery is particularly impressive. In The Name of the Nearest River, the reader is plunged into a world of molten chili, demolition derbies, and lakes hiding ancient catfish. Like most of the rural south, Kentucky is a land of contradictions. The forests, while bountiful in ginseng, goldenseal, and may apple, can just as easily trap a stranger in a maze of endless trees. As Ransom, a character in “The Coal Thief” states, “you could be close enough to spit on whatever it is you’re looking for and never know it’s in here.” Taylor also uses imagery to underscore the choices made by his characters. In “This Device Must Start on Zero,” the chaos of the weekly demolition derby parallels the love affairs of Wife, the central character in the story.

Taylor’s seductive landscape draws readers into The Name of the Nearest River. However, it is his stark portrayal of the human condition that renders the book appealing to a wide audience. Taylor presents his characters honestly, their flaws painfully apparent. Few of Taylor’s characters are completely likeable, and some (like Granville) are nearly revolting. Taylor makes no attempt to sanitize their personalities, but instead reveals the circumstances that brought them to their personal outlooks. In this way, he allows the reader to develop a deeper sense of empathy and appreciation for the difficult life of rural Kentucky.

While the characters are rough, they are also very introspective. Taylor devotes as much time exploring the emotions of his characters as he does their circumstances. In “A Lakeside Penitence,” Doug and Lum reflect on the nature of desire after losing their prize catfish to a couple of jet-skiers. According to Doug, the fish was taken because they “wanted it in the wrong kind of way.” These musings are essential as they reveal the complexity of each character and ask us to consider questions of morality.

Alex Taylor holds an MFA from the University of Mississippi and currently teaches at Western Kentucky University. His work has appeared in Carolina Quarterly, The Greensboro Review, American Short Fiction, and other literary journals. Taylor’s debut collection balances raw grit and empathy in a way that not merely holds our attention, but washes over us like the river itself.

Laurence Stacey is an assistant editor at Flycatcher.

Make a free website with Yola