“To be Southern is to grow up among the ruins,” journalist (and native Alabamian) Margaret Eby muses in her fascinating paean to the people and places that inspired some of the most revered chroniclers of life below the Mason Dixon line. Through a string of mini-biographies, Eby travels to locales such as William Faulkner’s “postage stamp” of native soil in Oxford, Mississippi and the rough-hewn Bacon County, Georgia that fueled Harry Crews’ gothic tales and fuses her own experiences with the lives behind the letters. There are a few hiccups in the early chapters of the book when Eby allows moments of trite sentimentality to sneak in and bog down her investigations.
However, one might suspect that this was a planned tactic meant to show Eby’s talent progressing with each passing chapter. In fact, the awkward stretches prove to be isolated occurrences and dwarfed by the insight that Eby provides, not only on characters such as John Kennedy Toole’s megalomaniacal mother Thelma, but also on the joys that Barry Hannah derived from whiling his time away drinking cold beer and watching co-eds from the porch of an bookstore in Oxford. By dusting off and peeking behind these ruins in occasionally far flung corners of Dixie, Eby lyrically uncovers a bit of the magic that makes a southern writer southern… which very well might be, as Flannery O’Connor said, “to find at home what others have to go elsewhere seeking.”