review of Gary Carden's:
Jars in the Flood and Other Stories
2000 Parkway Publishers Boone, NC 28607
by Kay Byer for the Asheville Citizen
or money order
plus $2.00 shipping to:
Sylva, N. C. 28779
Mason Jars in the Flood and Other Stories
Smith once called Gary Carden the best unpublished writer she'd
ever met. That was before MASON JARS IN THE FLOOD & OTHER STORIES
came along to show the rest of the world what Smith and others
who have admired Carden's work over the years have always known:
Gary Carden is a master storyteller. And now, it's fair to say,
he is no longer one of our best unpublished writers. He is one
of our best, period.
has been writing and telling stories for many years. A native
of Sylva, he has made a fine regional reputation for himself,
thanks not only to his story-making skills but also to his efforts
as a playwright. His drama credits include THE RAINDROP WALTZ,
LAND'S END, THE UKTENA AND THE NUNNEHI, as well as a collection
of one-act plays. Add to that his collaborations with Collin
Wilcox Paxton in PAPA'S ANGELS and with Nina Anderson in BELLED
BUZZARDS, HUCKSTERS & GRIEVING SPECTERS:APPALACHIAN TALES STRANGE,
TRUE, & LEGENDARY, and one can see that Carden has consistently
worked hard at his craft.
the more reason, then, to celebrate this gathering of stories,
some of which go back twenty years or more, by my reckoning.
Carden begins his collection with an introduction describing
his beginnings as a storyteller: standing in the chicken coop,
entertain 150 white leghorns when he was six years old. But
there are differences between telling and writing stories. In
writing, Carden says, "I can be more thoughtful and the images
can be more descriptive. I can think, revise, expand, and polish."
Having watched some of these stories change and grow over the
years, I can testify to the steady advance in Carden's narrative
art since I first read the unforgettable "Jedro Tolley," revised
and expanded into MASON JAR'S "Shazam!"
The title story, also the first in the collection, sets up the
theme of the collection, story as a means of reaching out, of
survival, even. The young Harley Teester knows this, as he scribbles
his messages, rolls them into little scrolls and seals them
into Mason jars, throwing them one by one into the flooded creek.
Harley's message? "School is out and I don't have anybody to
play with. Why don't you come and see me?" Harley waits and
waits, but no one comes. The story ends with the grown-up Harley
telling us that he still dreams of the jars and a traveler arriving
at his doorstep, saying, "It has taken a long time to find you,
Harley. Do you still want to play?"
issued this invitation to his readers, Carden proceeds to treat
them to a lively and varied array of voices, all unashamedly
caught up in their passion for spinning language out of every
conceivable human emotion. The book's four sections are arranged
more less by voice, the longest being the first, "The Harley
Stories," where one finds Carden's alter ego at work, shaping
the elegiac remembrance of "When the Music Stopped," an autobiographical
story of losing his father, or the mock irony and school-boyish
humor of "A Stone, A Leaf, a Door." The irresistible "Sirens
of Moony Creek," introduces Harley to the deliciously disturbing
sight of Katie Sue Carnes and Jackie Dehart skinny-dipping in
the creek: "When Katie Sue climbed up the trunk of an ancient
oak that had fallen across the stream, vertigo seized Harley
and he fell to the floor of the old bridge. Rolling over on
his back, he stared at a blue summer sky and tried to understand."
Harley's voice dances an entertaining pas de deux with Granny
in "The Granny Stories," but don't expect your typical Grandma
to show up in this section. This Granny is, as the author warns,
a little wicked. All of her stories have roots in folklore,
some from Ireland, some from Chaucer and the Decameron, and
the thing she likes best is the rapt attention of her grandson.
These pieces remind me of Fred Chappell's great storytelling
poems, "My Mother Shoots the Breeze" and "My Grandmother Washes
her Vessels," for example. Not to mention Lee Smiths' Granny
Younger in ORAL HISTORY. Carden shares with Chappell and Smith
an unfailing ear for dialect and narrative pacing. His Granny
could hold her own with Smith's Granny Younger any day.
haunting "Blind Hodur," drawn from a Japanese folk tale, has
a section all to itself, which is fitting, for this is one of
the strongest works in the book. Who could resist its opening
"His earliest memories were of his mother's voice. In that still,
dark world where he would always live, he lifted his child's
fingers to her face and lightly traced the shape of her moving
mouth. She said, Listen, child, and I'll tell you a story."
Of course Hodur begins to tell stories, and those stories begin
to lead him into the mysterious twists and turns of his own
book's concluding story, "The Man Who Wouldn't Listen," is the
most personal of the collection, dealing with the author's hearing
loss. Roger, the well-nigh deaf narrator, also tells stories,
but this gift is not enough. "Little by little a shadow came
over him, and he felt alone, even in the midst of crowds. For
although he could perform, he couldn't listen. 'No one wants
to talk to me,' he lamented. 'Not even God.' "
protests, and thus ensues a dialogue that ends with God suggesting
that Roger take up writing. "Why didn't you tell me this thirty
years ago?" rails Roger. "You didn't have anything to say then,"
God retorts. "Now you do." And so Roger writes, describing the
sound of rain, wind, his grandmother's singing, and by the end
of the story, God and Roger finally agree on something. This
writing of stories is a pretty good deal.
JARS IN THE FLOOD
won't disagree with that conclusion. Carden has woven together
a celebration of the Appalachian storytelling spirit, and he
has done so in a collection that often reaches far beyond the
region's coves and summits toward the voices of other times
and cultures, bringing them back home to Jackson County, North
Carolina, and transforming them into the mountain voices he
knows so well how to speak.