"Masterful....With this rich and mesmerizing collection of short fiction, Downs underscores the enduring truth of William Faulkner's observation 'The past is never dead. In fact, it's not even past.'"--Philadelphia Inquirer
"One of the most entertaining books of short stories in a long time . . . quintessentially American and, by turns, serious, playful, maudlin, and humorous....At the heart of all the stories are the beautiful, unforgiving relationships between men and women....Downs' characters possess strong will and refreshing identity . . . often missing in today's literature.....By toying with history, Downs might be getting closer to the truth than all the history books you had to read in high school."--Lexington Herald-Leader
"If Flannery O'Connor is right--that we will be known not by our statements but by the stories we tell--then we are in good hands....Downs has written a book that explores the precariousness of history in our amnesiac modernity....in his tales of historical intrusion, Downs also speaks elegantly of those ugly histories, namely of racism and hatred, that we'd rather forget, and paints a hopeful portrait of the role family can play in healing those wounds....[The story 'Black Pork'] could serve as a founding myth for a racially integrated South, if such a place could be said to exist."--San Francisco Chronicle
A "luminous new collection" about "cousins of Binx Bolling on the less genteel side of the family . . . who display an innocence bordering on ignorance, until a moment of sudden and bitter epiphany"--Small Spiral Notebook
A "multifaceted and exquisite rendering of the modern (and postmodern) south....Spit Baths manages to capture the richly changing tapestry that makes up the modern southern experience.....In Spit Baths, Downs manages to be part of the vital current of southern literary tradition and absolutely free from its restrictive ties....Buy this book. Hold onto it, loan it out, force it on friends. You'll be glad you did." --- storySouth
"Spit Baths takes us straight to the heartland and lets us into the strange inner lives of an array of characters who are defined by where they are—whether in Kentucky, Tennessee, Hawaii, or yes, even the bathroom. Like Flannery O’Connor, Downs gives us a nuanced view of an imperfect life in the South....The characters that populate Downs’ debut fiction are hauntingly vulnerable; their unique voices capture their desperation—be they poor Southern whites, confused teenage boys, or gutsy matriarchs."--Christine Condon, Editor's Choice, The Literary Review
"While Downs explores the failure of affection among a doomed masculinity, he also creates a strong and generous femininity. His prose is evocative and finely tuned to his gritty material, and his narratives illuminate his characters and their concerns while acknowledging that the social forces that inform both are impossible to explicate, not because they are too far outside the reader’s experience but, rather, because they are too close."--Sierra Bellows, Virginia Quarterly Review
"Downs defines his characters by the places they come from and the people they leave behind.....As Downs shows repeatedly in this strong collection, even the places we think we've behind never quite let go of us."--Main Line magazine
"Downs' characters often straddle the old and new South, and wear their geographical location as a birthmark. These stories sit proudly on my bookshelf next to George Singleton's Drowning in Gruel and Sidney Thompson's Sideshow as evidence that the southern short story is alive, well, and evolving. Flannery O'Connor would be very proud."--Largehearted Boy
"Downs is my kind of writer....This is a beautifully crafted collection."--Christian Bauman, Identity Theory magazine
"Downs doesn't write about this new South of homogenous big-box retail and diversifying populations, of booming exurbs and shriveling small towns. The world he conjures in Spit Baths is closer to Flannery O'Connor's own....His characters are obsessed with the past and in flight from it." ---Nashville Scene
"Raymond Carver-esque sad sagas grounded in the forgotten dirt roads of a neglected America."--34th Street
"A kaleidoscopic description of an extended family falling apart that is as disorienting as it is beautiful....simultaneously excruciating and deeply insightful about race....A strong sense of style and unfaltering command of his material."--Publisher's Weekly
"A series of 13 punchy, white-trashy takes of displacement and youthful perplexity....the first "Adam's Curse" is a mere two pages long and demonstrates the strange beauty of Downs' imagination....a writer to watch."--Kirkus Reviews
"Reading Spit Baths by Greg Downs, it is easy to see why the collection won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Like Flannery O'Connor, certain of Greg Downs' stories engage in raw, unflinching examination of the rural South....His stories are often daring and raw, but at the same time sentimental and nostalgic. It all makes for a fascinating combination worth reading and then reading again."--Annette Croce, Roses & Thorns
"There's immense heart to Downs' quirky but controlled story telling."--Philadelphia Magazine
"Readers are in for a treat"--Christopher Tilghman
"Thoroughly original and completely authentic....he draws back a curtain to reveal a world in which people are always searching, never finding someone or some place they can call home."--Fenton Johnson
Lexington Herald-Leader review
In short, it's very entertaining
Relationships and families form heart of collection of stories
By Reviewed By Chris Collins
When an author writes a book of short stories, all the stories should maintain their distinctive voices. The stories might take us from Cynthiana to Hawaii, but each story must be self-contained and able to stand alone. It also must fit effortlessly into the panoply of characters and voices the author is intending to convey.
That said, Greg Downs' Spit Baths is one of the most entertaining books of short stories in a long time.
Baseball, trains, populist politicians, colonial soldiers, school field trips figure prominently in these stories, which are quintessentially American and, by turns, serious, playful, maudlin, and humorous. The book captures the dissonance of a self-conscious region rising out of the bitter civil rights struggle, forced to face its failures and its subtle achievements and move ahead.
At the heart of all the stories are the beautiful, unforgiving relationships between men and women and, by extension, the families they produce. Downs' characters possess strong will and refreshing identity. Not entirely certain of their immediate futures, they are certain of themselves. It is an identity and ethos often missing in today's literature.
The 13 short stories are full of the complexity of family, race, region and past that make up our own history.
In Downs' pages live the remnants of the past juxtaposed with the new. It is a thriving past full of the mustiness that comes with age, but also a spry, magical past that takes a stark departure from the history you might have read in history class. It makes fruitful use of the politically opportunistic revisionist history in vogue in today's media to make everyone a participant.
For example, George Washington makes an appearance. Not as the physically commanding general depicted in George Washington Crossing the Delaware -- that Washington dies before the Revolutionary War is over, drowning in the Schuylkill River after the hull of his boat hits a rock. In Downs' The Hired Man, commanders replace him with a toothless farmer hoeing near their camp next to the Schuylkill. Their particular consternation is our gain. That our nation's father was merely a sentient clodbuster minding his own business turns history on its head. Like all good stories, it asks more questions than it answers.
In Ain't I a King Too, a man traveling to Texas to meet the program director of the National Youth Administration Office, Lyndon Johnson, gets sidetracked by a gas station attendant in Louisiana who thinks he resembles the recently assassinated governor of Louisiana, Huey Long.
They join the massive pilgrimage that has formed to view Long lying in state. Encapsulating the hope of a depressed region in mourning, Downs paints a somber picture of how Jacksonian democracy lives and dies by the populist sentiment it portends.
In Adam's Curse, it is the women, mother Memaw and aunt Farrah, who decide to live without their husbands. They go on a cruise in Nova Scotia and send the men a postcard. Left behind, the old men talk in cryptic phrases and recklessly play chess in the park. It is a tale of desperate humanity.
In all of his stories, Downs puts us in or near the maelstrom. He expertly manipulates the icons of our history to produce palpable characters more related to the outlanders we grew up with than the ideal reproduced in grade school. This book reads more like a collection of folk songs than of short stories. By toying with history, Downs might be getting closer to the truth than all the history books you had to read in high school.
Spit Baths won the Flannery O'Connor award for short fiction. It is a book you won't regret reading.
Philadelphia Inquirer review
Realizing the past can never be escaped
Characters in Greg Downs' short stories have lost their way, with love elusive and hope nearly gone.
By Greg Downs
University of Georgia Press.
174 pp. $24.95.
Reviewed by Martha Woodall
I was part way through Spit Baths, Greg Downs' singular short-story collection, when word surfaced that Downs lived in Philadelphia. No way. Apart from "The Hired Man" - a riff about a retired Philadelphia schoolteacher stumbling across a document that suggests George Washington died after falling into the Schuylkill in 1778 and was replaced by an impostor with false teeth - these 13 pieces of short fiction have scant ties to the Philadelphia area.
But sure enough, a check of Downs' Web site reveals that the city can claim him, if only for a while, now that he has completed doctoral studies in history at the University of Pennsylvania.
But based on this collection, which earned Downs the Flannery O'Connor Award for short fiction, the Mid-Atlantic region has not yet captured Downs' imagination. Most of the stories in Spit Baths are tales from border states, slim shards from Downs' fevered dreams about odd characters and anxious teachers in towns where Kentucky brushes up against Ohio.
Emblems of the South are everywhere, from rented sharecroppers' cabins and battered hope chests to Little Debbie snack cakes. And even those characters who have moved North retain a Southern sensibility and a fixation on race that thrums beneath everything.
Many of the people in these tales are struggling to break from the racism of the past but discover that the weight of generations makes escape impossible. Even Charlie, the protagonist of "Indoor Plumbing," who has grown up in Ann Arbor, Mich., finds that a summer in Kentucky with a bigoted grandfather when he was 12 has left him with more than an abiding interest in the Cincinnati Reds.
The characters in Spit Baths are in transition, fleeing jobs or relations. Sometimes, they've been pushed aside, like the menfolk in "Adam's Curse," the short-short that opens the collection with the tantalizing sentence: "In June, all the women in my family made a pact to live without men... ."
At other times, the central figures are literally in transit. In "Ain't I a King, Too?", the most resolutely Southern gothic tale, a narrator abandons his family and job in Elizabethtown, Ky., in 1935 to head to Austin, Texas, to work as an aide in a National Youth Administration office for "a program director who became Lyndon Johnson." The narrator makes an abrupt detour when he arrives in Louisiana the day after Huey Long's assassination and discovers that he resembles the slain politician.
Downs uses his grounding in history to make the Depression vivid.
"It was a long way to Texas by turnpike, and longer still because my father's Chevrolet gave out oil... . I must have passed half the world in those two days down to Louisiana, thousands of men out on the road, hats rimmed with sweat, men dropping suitcases behind them to lose the weight, men walking alone along the desiccated fields."
That narrator and other characters in these stories yearn for emotional connections but have been damaged in some way. Their hopes are blunted, their horizons have shrunk, and they are filled with regret.
In "Snack Cakes," a grandfather's weary sixth wife tells the man's grandson: "I'm just tired, Charlie. Tired of being a woman and tired of him being a man."
While Downs shows that romantic and even familial love remain elusive, his characters want to leave their mark. In the title story, Maw-Maw, a grandmother, spends a summer caring for Crawford, her 8-year-old grandson, before he moves to Missouri with his mother. Her campaign to leave an imprint includes a ritual of spitting into a green towel.
"Then she started scrubbing his face. Every day she did this, and still Crawford hated it... .
" 'The spit catches what the soap won't,' " she tells him.
Downs' masterful story "Black Pork" centers on Branch, a young man who has returned home after one disappointing season with a minor-league baseball team in Iowa to discover that his grandfather is dying and that Ruby-Anne, a young African American girl who was Branch's childhood friend, loves him.
When Branch attempts to distance himself from Ruby-Anne's affections, he tells her: " 'I ain't going to make you happy. I'm going to make you sad, Ruby-Anne.' "
This story also directly deals with how the aftermath of the nation's toxic racial history intrudes on individual lives. A female college professor who lives nearby sends Branch notes, warning him: "No more white men chasing down black girls just because they can. There are laws now, and there are people who will make sure those laws get enforced until... statutory rapists like you are history."
With this rich and mesmerizing collection of short fiction, Downs underscores the enduring truth of William Faulkner's observation "The past is never dead. In fact, it's not even past."
San Francisco Chronicle review
Desperate lives viewed through the refracting lens of history
- Joey Rubin
Thursday, December 14, 2006
If Flannery O'Connor is right -- that we will be known not by our statements or statistics but by the stories we tell -- then we are in good hands with the winners of the 2006 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Both collections, "Spit Baths," by Greg Downs, and "Imaginary Lives of Mechanical Men," by Randy F. Nelson, are first books by writers of promise; we can only hope their attention to social nuance and devotion to linguistic honesty will be the markers by which our current populace is understood.
Downs has written a book that explores the precariousness of history in our amnesiac modernity. "Ain't I a King Too?," which is set the day after populist Sen. Huey Long is assassinated, follows a middle-aged man as he flees his own domestic troubles only to become chauffeur to a new set when he is mistaken for the dead politician. Similarly, in "The Hired Man," the private life of a retired history teacher is interrupted when he discovers that the George Washington we know today was a hired stand-in.
But in his tales of historical intrusion, Downs also speaks elegantly of those ugly histories, namely of racism and hatred, that we'd rather forget, and paints a hopeful portrait of the role family can play in healing those wounds.
The young lovers of "Black Pork" must learn to ignore society's disapproval before they can forge a biracial union -- and they do so only because of the support of their ad hoc parents. (It's a tale that could serve as a founding myth for a racially integrated South, if such a place could be said to exist.)
Likewise, in "A Comparative History of Nashville Love Affairs," Andrew Jackson inspires an empty-nester husband to wonder if he loves his wife enough. Some of the best poetry of the collection occurs when the husband compares his own confusion to his idea of Jackson's shame about his wife's previous marriage: "Every day, the pain must have been solid and sour as sliced lime tucked inside his cheek. When he ate at the pain, it must have flooded his mouth, chewed at every sore his nervous teeth gnawed inside his lips, must have reminded him always that he loved her."
Downs is gifted at presenting the tension that accompanies familial love -- be it the bafflement those tied by blood feel at the depth of their attachment, or the anxiety those bound by choice feel when realizing affection alone may not hold them together. His historical scope serves to enliven, not obscure, this uncertainty.
Small Spiral Notebook Review
Greg Downs’ luminous new collection of stories....
Downs’ Mid-South is a tangle of borders, beset by rivers and torn between the North and South. Living in a place where the present blurs into the past, Downs’ characters are often childlike adults or precocious children who display an innocence bordering on ignorance, until a moment of sudden and bitter epiphany....
A forlorn ache flows through many of Downs’ stories, none more than “Black Pork.” Branch, a young and washed-up minor league baseball player, returns to his grandfather’s cabin, where he begins a chaste love affair with Ruby-Anne, his fifteen-year-old African-American neighbor....
“Ain’t I a King, Too,” a man walks out on his wife and child at the height of the Great Depression and heads for Louisiana, where he’s mistaken for the recently assassinated Huey Long. When the false Huey falls in with an up-country family on their way to the funeral, the dustbowl landscape and the family’s hollow desperation, like images from a Walker Evans photograph, perfectly capture the historical moment, while the man’s farcical masquerade through the bayou provides an absurd counterpoint to the bleakness....
“I can’t say as ever I was lost,” Daniel Boone once wrote, “but I was bewildered once for three days.” So it might be said for the men of Spit Baths, cousins of Binx Bolling on the less genteel side of the family. They are too much a part of the Mid-South landscape, like the rivers and tobacco fields, to be lost. Destined to wander “in the warren of things we pass over but do not often remember,” they wonder how it all came to be—how the histories of a place and a person can become the same; how the borders have changed, but not much else.
The Literary Review, Editor's Choice
Greg Downs, Spit Baths: Stories. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2006.
Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction, Spit Baths takes us straight to the heartland and lets us into the strange inner lives of an array of characters who are defined by where they are—whether in Kentucky, Tennessee, Hawaii, or yes, even the bathroom.
Like Flannery O’Connor, Downs gives us a nuanced view of an imperfect life in the South through hints of racial tension, outlandish actions, and the sometimes self-inflicted social displacement of people from all walks of life. Adding to their sense of displacement is the frustration these characters experience as they struggle to navigate flawed relationships using language that fails them more often than not. The characters that populate Downs’ debut fiction are hauntingly vulnerable; their unique voices capture their desperation—be they poor Southern whites, confused teenage boys, or gutsy matriarchs.
Downs captures with visceral accuracy the longing that children feel for a missing parent or a place they’ve called home. In the title story, Crawford’s mother temporarily leaves him in Kentucky with his grandmother while she starts a life in Missouri. As Maw-Maw offers Crawford life lessons over baseball—a language her eight-year-old grandson speaks—the boy begins to doubt his mother for deserting him. At first Crawford can’t wait to leave his grandmother and “her silly rules and her strange smells,” but in the end he cannot take the step forward to his mother and their new life. This ultimate moment is dreaded, painful; he punches himself in the stomach. We feel the impact of that punch, what it means to leave and be left.
In “Domestic Architecture” an adulterous father thinks he can fix his family’s problems by moving them to Hawaii for a fresh start. The father calls his son Eugene by the nickname of “Champ”—not because he won anything—but “because he’s my Champ. . . . It doesn’t get any simpler than that.” The boy resents his father for moving the family and is forever searching for a way to feel at home. As Eugene tries to find solace in the wind, we are witness to some of Downs’ most beautiful prose: “When the gusts battered the mountainside behind the house, they gave up their haul of rainwater, and shuffled off to the coasts. His father called it their own private concert, the Kauai symphony. . . . Eugene thought it was a message coming to them from home, a language he could no longer understand.”
In “Indoor Plumbing,” it is the language of racism the protagonist, Charlie, struggles not to heed: The boy develops a hang-up about public restrooms after his bigoted grandfather tells him that white people should use the stalls and black people the urinals. In “Black Pork,” a black and a white family live side by side and are friendly in the yard; they look out for each other. However, the adults only set foot in each other’s houses twice a year—on Thanksgiving and Christmas, while a nosy neighbor writes venomous letters warning the white boy to stay away from the black girl he’s known his whole life. Here, the children break the barriers, “pass[ing] back and forth between the two homes all the time,” creating a language of their own that originates in love.
These are, at the core, stories of miscommunication and disappointment. In observing a friend’s dysfunctional relationship in “Nashville Love Affairs,” Leonard recognizes a true, desperate love there—and realizes that his friend’s wife will never love her husband the way he loves her. Leonard looks at his own marriage; when his wife Embee touches him, he thinks: “You can’t tell someone you don’t love them as much as you should, as much as you want to. Soon as you say that, they’re gone thinking you don’t love them at all, don’t want to be with them. What you say and what they think you mean are not the same. So you can’t say anything at all.” Downs consistently shows us people’s insecurities during starkly honest moments. Yet he seems to suggest through these revelations that imperfection is not just to be borne, but that real beauty lies in this bared humanity.
In this book’s most experimental story, a teaching intern named Eric finds himself on a class trip to see his parents at his childhood home. A bizarre fantasy, “Field Trip” humiliates the protagonist on the most basic level: Eric repeatedly gets dressed and is told at every turn that he is naked. His father presents a slide show with photos of Eric’s life—fully exposing his son’s messy relationship; he reveals that Eric would not use birth control “but instead kept himself above it, entertaining himself with video games while his girlfriend sat alone in a doctor’s office.” Throughout the day, Eric’s mistakes are shockingly disclosed to his students and colleagues—leaving him to wrestle with the question of how, if possible, to explain himself and make things right.
When it comes to making things right, Downs’ characters arrive at breakthrough understandings about their lives and ways of talking to one another that rarely yield clear-cut answers. Instead, Downs leaves the door ajar.
storySouth review of Spit Baths
Spit Baths offers a multifaceted and exquisite rendering of the modern (and postmodern) south, the stories' realism and detail no less effective for their imaginative, poetic depictions....
Spit Baths manages to capture the richly changing tapestry that makes up the modern southern experience....
Some of the stories in Spit Baths, however, bring a subtle and nuanced view to the race questions in the south. We see the slow, cancerous growth of prejudice in the aptly and metaphorically named "Indoor Plumbing" (previously published by storySouth) which is counterbalanced with "Black Pork," published in this issue, which Publisher's Weekly refers to as a "simultaneously excruciating and deeply insightful commentary" about race.
Downs doesn't limit himself to one theme; some of the more successful stories in the collection deal with the frail and tenuous webs men and women spin between each other in both the waxing and waning days of romantic relationships.
One of the most entertaining stories in the book, "Freedom Ride" is about a young teacher who is chaperoning fifty-five seventh graders on a field trip to a civil rights amusement park (to quote Dave Berry: I promise I am not making this up); one of his fellow teachers and chaperones is his reluctant lover. The field trip devolves into chaos, with the students fighting each other over reenacted lunch counter boycotts and sit-ins, boats spinning out of control in some kind of Pirates of the Caribbean ride through civil rights history, and talking mannequins matched with the wrong voice tapes. Somehow, the narrator's attempts to help the hapless tour guide (on what must be the worst museum to the Civil Rights era ever created) and his reluctant bonding with one of his young charges helps him gain perspective on his own budding romance.
The other element that Downs brings to the table of short fiction, however, is that thing which is so unteachable in MFA programs and so hard to discuss in fiction workshops—a vital and inventive imagination. In a few stories he seems to owe more of a debt to writers like Ron Carlson and Frederick Barthelme than he does to such southern realists as Richard Ford (yeah, Richard, we know you don't like to be called a "southern writer," but hey, you're from Mississippi). For example, "Ain't I a King, Too?" is the story of a man whose marriage and life are falling apart who finds himself in Louisiana the day after Huey Long's assassination in 1935; more to the point, he finds himself meeting some people at a filling station who seemingly take him for Long.....
In Spit Baths, Downs manages to be part of the vital current of southern literary tradition and absolutely free from its restrictive ties. At a time when short story collections seem to be an endangered species (more to come on this), you have to seek out the good ones and treasure them when you find them. Buy this book. Hold onto it, loan it out, force it on friends. You'll be glad you did.
Philadelphia Magazine review
History also lurks in this debut short-story collection by West Philly's Downs, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award: "The Hired Man" is a revisionist take on Washington's winter at Valley Forge, while "Domestic Architecture" features a house with an eerie past. "Field Trip" is a slide show through a lifetime of poor decisions (though it may all be a dream). Downs writes with a Southern twang, and handles interracial romance frequently and delicately, as in "Black Pork," with a white teen resisting a black neighbor's advances. Themes and symbols tend to recur: State lines spell betrayal; kids are in the care of grandparents. But there's immense heart to Downs's quirky but controlled storytelling, spiked with such observations as, "Truth, that's just a four-letter word, with another letter added on for bad luck."
When you hear the title of the book, you can't help but think, "Surely he's not talking about what I think he's talking about." But rest assured that when author Greg Downs named his book "Spit Baths," he was talking about that time-honored tradition of Southern mamas and grandmas using saliva and a thumb to clean the dirt off their children's faces.
But the title is just a glimpse into this award-winning book, which weaves history, politics and the complexities of small-town life into colorful short stories.
Small Town Boy: Nashville Scene 11/
Downs doesn’t write about this new South of homogenous big-box retail and diversifying populations, of booming exurbs and shriveling small towns. The world he conjures in Spit Baths is closer to O’Connor’s own—informed by his observations of Elizabethtown, Ky., and Middle Tennessee—and it’s distinctly Southern. His characters are both obsessed with the past and in flight from it; they struggle to make sense of life where things are domestically or historically off-kilter. Downs seems to have taken to heart O’Connor’s adage: “To know oneself is to know one’s region. It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world.” Though Flannery O’Connor Award-winning books are not required to be the least bit Dixiefied in tone or subject, it’s hard not to see Spit Baths as a particularly apt choice for the honor....
Though the women of Spit Baths are often feisty, self-sufficient females with a formidable presence—“She wouldn’t let a bird teach her how to fly,” another character says of Maw-Maw—these stories speak most forcefully about the lives of boys and men. And they’re infused with history, both real and invented: the middle-aged narrator of “A Comparative History of Nashville Love Affairs” distracts himself from his rickety marriage with thoughts of lovers past: Andrew and Rachel Jackson, Frank Goad Clement and his mistresses, former Nashville Mayor Bill Boner and his fourth wife, lounge singer Traci Peel. “It’s a shame that another person’s pain makes your own easier to take,” he muses....
Many young writers work adolescence into their first books, but Downs—who spent his teen years as a student at University School of Nashville—is more interested in the “less told and more peculiar” material mined from his childhood than any adolescent coming-of-age tropes. “When you’re 7 you’re still free to be weird because you like things that other people don’t like, or you like things you’re not supposed to like.” In fact, he says, 7-year-olds are an awful lot like writers. “You spend more time thinking and doing things by yourself than you should, and you’re not interested in the things you’re supposed to be interested in—or you’re caught up in the vulgar, or the gross, or the mundane.”
From 34th Street:
Like all good stories, the tales are Raymond Carver-esque, sad sagas grounded in the forgotten dirt roads of a neglected America. It makes sense that Downs has so many stories to tell; after all, he's done more in 35 years than most of us could do in five lifetimes.
From the Elizabethtown News-Enterprise
Writer keeping Southern literary tradition alive
Greg Downs thinks the world used to be stranger.
Not strange in a bad way. But particular.
Particular like the Whistle Stop in Glendale. Like an old-timer who, looking up from his meatloaf at so-and-so who just walked in, could rattle off the new arrival's genealogy.
From Philadelphia Weekly, Oct. 11, 2006
A Philly author’s short stories exhibit a rare sense of history....His characters devour biographies, attend politicians’ funerals, chaperone field trips, latch onto outmoded street names, unearth secrets about dead presidents and watch chain stores gobble up small towns....In a story about a teacher who marries a former student, Downs writes, “Without history as a topic between them, he did not know what to say.” Another depicts a town split by a state line, spurring the rival basketball teams to trade insults like, “Maybe they call that defense in Kentucky” and “Get that Tennessee shit out of here.”
Lovely descriptions of baseball float through “Black Pork,” while “Snack Cakes” finds an overeating senior touring his former wives with a reluctant grandson in tow. “Indoor Plumbing” and “Freedom Rides” brush against the specter of racism, and “Domestic Architecture” has a parallel tale in which a leprous man is forced to leave his family....The book’s odd title comes from a story of the same name, in which a woman uses saliva to clean her grandson’s face. “The spit catches what the soap won’t,” she says.
Willful, self-reliant women are a staple in Downs’ stories, cutting men down to size on a regular basis. In the first story “Adam’s Curse” the women in a family simply give up on the men one day. Meanwhile, a mother in “Black Pork” muses, “He probably don’t even smoke Marlboros no more. He probably isn’t even faithful to his habits.”
Elsewhere thick-skinned daughters and ex-wives dish out insults to nonplussed males. Downs dedicated the book to his mother and grandmother, calling each “a fighter.”
From Publishers Weekly:
Examining the nooks and crannies of contemporary backwater life in the South and Midwest, Downs's debut collection opens with a kaleidoscopic description of an extended family breaking apart that is as disorienting as it is beautiful.
"Black Pork" follows a white minor league pitcher back to the former sharecropper's shack he shares with his dementia-plagued grandfather, and manages to be simultaneously excruciating and deeply insightful about race as it centers on the two men's relationship with the black single mother and daughter across the lane.
In "Ain't I a King, Too-" (set in 1935) a man about to leave his family finds himself abducted when he is mistaken for the then just assassinated Huey P. Long, the corrupt former governor of Louisiana. "Freedom Rider" turns similarly odd when a school trip turns into a physical free-for-all among the adolescent participants. Even more darkly, in "A Comparative History of Nashville Love Affairs," a middle-aged man considers the frailties of his own marriage after observing a colleague eyeing a group of the colleague's wife's students.
A strong sense of style and unfaltering command of his material allow Downs to take the kinds of risks in tone and subject that make his debut a love-it-or-hate-it proposition.(Oct.)
From Kirkus Reviews:
A series of 13 punchy, white-trashy takes on displacement and youthful perplexity.
The first, "Adam's Curse," is a mere two pages long, and demonstrates nicely the strange beauty of Downs's imagination. The 19-year-old college-dropout narrator recounts blandly the decision by his female relatives to live without men-"they simply exhaled the men like sighs from their houses." The narrator, who lives in the basement of his aunt's house, observes both sides of the sexual divide, all the while simply aching to hop in the car of the willing Kroger checkout girl and take a ride with her.
The narrator of "Snack Cakes," as in many of the stories, is a high-school boy on the cusp of manhood, trying to navigate the dysfunctional trajectories of various family members-in this case, a grandfather who married six times still can't quite decide which wife he loves best.
In the title story, the boy's mother has left him for a month in the care of his grandmother, Maw-Maw, in Joelton, Ky., in order to find an apartment and new life for them in Springfield, Mo. The boy, Crawford, isn't sure what to think: "Every day your mother wakes up and says it's a new day," Maw-Maw tells him skeptically. "But the truth is there aren't any new days."
"Field Trip" fuses a young man's sexual daydreams into a schoolbus outing, while "Freedom Rides" pursues a soured middle-school trip through civil-rights history.
Perhaps the most ambitious and compelling story here is "Ain't I a King, Too?," involving the identity crisis of a middle-aged loner fleeing domestic tribulation back in Kentucky in 1935, who arrives in Shreveport, La., only to be mistaken for the recently deceased senator, Huey Long.
Downs, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, is a writer to watch. His work has a cerebral, surreal element that requires a little piecing together.
From other authors:
"The American short story is in fine hands with Greg Downs and Spit Baths. The stories are often funny, always deft. Here, the conundrums of American life and family are put in bold relief. Readers are in for a treat."
—Christopher Tilghman, author of Roads of the Heart
"Always engaging, at times compelling, Spit Baths is both thoroughly original and completely authentic. Greg Downs unifies these disparate stories through their tone—deadpan, informed with preternatural wisdom, so real they verge into surreal. Working from events stranger than fiction, he explores the hard truths at the edges of our lives, especially regarding the lingering scars of racism. In the process, he draws back a curtain to reveal a world in which people are always searching, never finding someone or some place they can call home."
—Fenton Johnson, author of Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey
With a reporter's eye for the inside story and a historian's grasp of the ironies in our collective past, Greg Downs affectionately observes some of the last survivors of what Greil Marcus has called the old, weird America. Living off the map and out of sight, folks like Embee, Rudy, Peg, and Branch define themselves by where they are, not by what they eat, drink, or wear.
The man who is soon to abandon his family in "Ain't I a King, Too?" is mistaken for the populist autocrat of Louisiana, Huey P. Long-on the day after Long's assassination. In "Hope Chests," a history teacher marries his student and takes her away from a place she hated, only to find that neither one of them can fully leave it behind. An elderly man in "Snack Cakes" enlists his grandson to help distribute his belongings among his many ex-wives, living and dead. In the title story, another intergenerational family tale, a young boy is caught in a feud between his mother and grandmother. The older woman uses the language of baseball to convey her view of religion and nobility to her grandson before the boy's mother takes him away, maybe forever.
Caught up in pasts both personal and epic, Downs's characters struggle to maintain their peculiar, grounded manners in an increasingly detached world.
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