Book Review: The Name of the Nearest River

The Name of the Nearest River
by Alex Taylor

Naturalism has always been a part of Southern Literature. Even while writers explore Southern people, their heroism, flaws, and humanity, the South has always been about place and nature. This is especially true for Alex Taylor gritty debut collection, The Name of Nearest River.

The title of the collection itself calls forth a familiarity with the land (how else does one know the name of the nearest river?), something most of his characters have living lives on the edge: unseen and dirty--both figurtively and literally.

In the first story--the title story--this is brought to the spotlight immediately. A man falls into a river while fishing. Two gamblers leave their game to find the body and deliever retribution in the wilderness, away from society. What they do is an animalistic type of revenge, something expected of savages.

Yes Taylor's characters are savages. These are far from the gentry in say, Gone With The Wind. Here we have thieves, killers, cheaters, lustful men, runaway grooms.

Yet Taylor strays away from caricutures despite the tall tale toned story here and there ("Equator Joe's Famous Nuclear Meltdown Chili" about a rivalry between a hobo and a theatre owner, for example). Taylor such tones are used more for voice, perhaps to even subvert his own characterizations, the loneliness of his characters, yet their own resilience, not to mention charming quirkiness--from the grandmother who pours sugar into a gas tank to stop her son from taking her ailing husband to the hosiptal to the groom to punches his bride after she laughs at his flower. These are memorable characters, yet they are instantly recognizable for their desires for better longed-for lives, and the failure reach it, though none of these characters are failures, just broken: "We've got a way down here of attracting all the heartbroken in the world," says one character, and there is plenty heart in this collection--not only broken ones, but troubled ones, lost ones, and also young ones who have yet to see the fire of the world that would eventually burn them or the people who would lock them up.

Taylor draws influences from another Southern writer--easily comparable to Flannery O'Connor. But in him, you can also see Joyce Carol Oates (the sinister, creeping violence that is everywhere), and Raymond Carver (quiet characters living quiet lives)--however oxymoronic that may seem at first. Yet this is what makes Taylor's voice and stories his own.

The collection concludes with the previously unpublished "Winter in the Blood." It follows a daughter and father duo as they are encounter two could-be killers in a snow storm. The story is the highest example of Taylor's fiction: there's a control in language, a violence that threatens tear everything apart, and characters strong enough to survive and tell the tale, even if they're not quite sure what there is to tell.

Taylor's debut is undoubtedly a powerful, refreshing voice in short fiction--expertly executed with a both a variety and unity sometimes lost in collections.

(On a different note, I didn't know this was avaliable at Walmart)

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