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Often while reading a book one feels that the author would have preferred to paint rather than write; one can sense the pleasure he derives from describing a landscape or a person, as if he were painting what he is saying, because deep in his heart he would have preferred to use brushes and colors.

— Pablo Picasso


Mason Jars in the Flood and Other Stories, by Gary Carden (Parkway Publishers Inc., 1999; 210 pages, $20 hardcover).

Southern writer Lee Smith has styled him an Appalachian Garrison Keillor, exclaiming, “Half the time I can’t decide whether to slap my knee or burst into tears! These stories are little miracles.” And North Carolina Poet Laureate Fred Chappell calls Mason Jars in the Flood “the real thing — here is a proud and modest book, homely fare.”

I have to agree with these writers’ views of Gary Carden and his collection of partly fictionalized memoirs. His is a voice that resonates with other voices — voices from his childhood; Southern voices calling out from the mist-shrouded mountains that have a mystery of their own, which runs deep and forever.

As a child, Carden listened to those voices, those of Papaw (his grandfather) and Granny, and that of Babby, Papaw’s mother. He listened to Rain Crow’s mourning on Painter Knob … and he listened to other voices as well, his boyish young mind absorbing everything — for everything was worth absorbing.

Like the time, for instance, that Uncle Albert showed up late at the Ritz movie theater to pick up young Gary. Most of the time, when Uncle Albert was supposed to accompany the boy to Saturday matinees, he’d deposit his nephew out front instead, handing him a dollar and telling him to watch the double feature twice — or until Uncle Albert finally returned from wherever it was he was going. With the boy safely installed inside watching a double bill of Lash LaRue, Uncle Albert was “free to take girls like Jay Nelle Frady and Bennie Sue Carnes to Maple Springs where they could dance in the big, dark backroom.”

But on this particular occasion, as Gary waits under the neon marquee for a tardy Uncle Albert, he notices that next door to the theater is a tombstone shop. The dark hillside nearby is littered with sad angels and praying hands.

“I was a little spooked, I guess, and when Albert finally pulled up, I was staring at the hillside. When I got in [Uncle Albert’s roadster], Albert said, ‘That is where they bury them, you know.’

‘Bury who?’

‘The cowboys that get killed on Saturday.’

I didn’t say anything. Albert was always funning. Then he said, ‘Not all of them, of course. Some are make-believe. But, now and then, the shootings are real. Mostly the Lash LaRue’.”

It’s plain to see the pleasure Mr. Carden takes in describing a landscape or a person, almost as if he were painting what he’s saying. He is more than simply a storyteller — his work is scenic, depicting landscapes, characters and a bygone era.

Such stories are often funny, sometimes bittersweet, but always entertaining — and the hillsides of Mr. Carden’s North Carolina are covered with them. You don’t have to be of a certain age or a certain region to connect with the narrator’s Southern memories — not at all. Let’s just hope that Gary Carden has more stories in him and that he is kind enough to share them with us in future books.

Gary Carden is a folklorist and storyteller who has won numerous awards for teaching English and drama. His two plays, The Raindrop Waltz and Land’s End, have been produced in Atlanta, Key West and San Francisco; his story Blow the Tannery Whistle!, a favorite among his fans, was produced as a PBS program.

The Witch Doctor’s Dance, by J. Benjamin Wofford, M.D. (Bright Mountain Books, 1999; 214 pages, $25).

A collection of anecdotes about practicing medicine in the South after World War II, this book opens with one of the most unusual chapter titles I’ve yet seen — “The Privilege of Killing.”

This is immediately followed by the opening and equally compelling first paragraph: “Dr. Harrison Thatcher, our chief at old City Hospital, used to say that you were not a good doctor until you had killed at least three patients. Well, by his standard, I must be doubly good. I have killed six, that is, six that I know of.”

An uncommon admission for anyone to make, but most especially someone who swears an oath to save lives, not take them. But then again, outside of fiction, we rarely hear such candor from either a physician or an author. From here, Dr. Wofford’s book offers more tales of death and dying, of ill luck and poverty and medical misfortunes. And this as well:

“The first baby I delivered in private practice was helped into the world by the light of a kerosene lamp, the delivery having taken place in a small mountain cabin up above Small Hope. It took all night and I remained there dutifully the whole time — the nearest hospital was in Broken Promise, Kentucky, thirty miles down the road.”

These spare but honest insights etch a portrait of a type of doctor that no longer exists — not because there aren’t still practitioners cut from the same noble cloth, but because the health-care system has changed enormously from what it was in the era when doctors made house calls and were actually wont to stay up all night with the sick, injured or expectant.

Even more interesting are some of Dr. Wofford’s revelations about a group of medicos — of which he was a member — that testified in so-called “sanity hearings.” The juries in these trials (often composed of unemployed miners looking to earn $5 a day) sat in judgment of alleged madmen, one of whom Dr. Wofford refers to as the “only honest person in the lot.”

We hear in further detail about another of the accused, a man named Cyril Jackson:

“He was big in proportion to other men as the mountains were to the foothills. He was, however, not blessed with gentle disposition. He would beat his wife, rape his daughter, and shoot his neighbors without provocation. He could do it drunk or sober, but it was a livelier show when he was drunk.” Such insights scour away any quaint ideas we might harbor about the romance of hard times in impoverished-but-beautiful Appalachia.

However, our narrator doesn’t go out of his way to paint a cynical picture of these places and people and times. Rather, he offers a clear sketch of hill life as he knew it then.

Not surprisingly, the doctor’s writing style lacks flash or panache, with the possible exception of some intriguing chapter titles and their subquotes, a la chapter 17, named “Decade of Discontent.” Borrowing the famous passage from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Wofford stages this section’s landscape this way: “Midway in the journey of our life, I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” It’s a sentiment that dwells in sharp contrast to the main body of the book’s prose, in which the good doctor practices a distinctly more clinical style.

Wofford’s medical odyssey carried him from Kentucky mining towns to Mt. Carmel, N.C. Along the way, he gathered stories like weeds and wildflowers, and he now bravely places his mixed bounty in a vase to endure our critical gazes. The resulting not-necessarily-picturesque still lifes are often revealing, sometimes disturbing; this is a book that looks inward and backward on a world very few of us have ever encountered.

J. Benjamin Wofford spent one-third of his professional career as an emergency-medicine specialist and the rest as a family practitioner. He retired in 1990, stayed home one week, then returned to the emergency rooms of small hospitals. For the last few years, he has worked in a rural clinic owned by a county hospital in Catawba, N.C. He will read from his book at Malaprop’s on Sunday, Aug. 6, beginning at 3 p.m. Call 254-6734 for more information.

Book signings

Friday, Aug. 4, 1-3 p.m.: Mike Cheatham will sign copies of his book Your Friendly Neighbor: The Story of Georgia’s Coca-Cola Bottling Families. The event takes place at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (55 Haywood St.). Call 254-6734 for more info.

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