Due South: Dispatches from Down HomeBy R. Scott BrunnerVillard, $19.95ISBN 0375502556Review by Taylor CatesRetrospectives of the 20th century note that developments such as television, the interstate system, the Great Migration, and the rise of the Sun Belt have virtually eliminated the distinctive characteristics of the South (capital S ). Indeed, reminiscences about the South these days seem to present two different yet equally distorted images: either a comedian's portrayal of a backwards place festering in its own ignorance, or a nostalgic reverie of days gone by.
R. Scott Brunner, an Alabama native and commentator on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, has compiled his radio essays about the region into Due South: Dispatches from Down Home. In doing so, he presents a picture of the South that includes aspects of both images, and yet captures some of the elements that continue to make the South a unique, elusive, and fascinating place.
Brunner's topics range widely. Many of his essays are about the joys and aggravations of raising young children. He writes of his mixed feelings when he learned that his wife was carrying twins. He addresses the mystery of the contents of a baby's diaper. These pieces are relevant whether the reader hails from Tennessee or from New York. Brunner hits his stride, however, when he focuses on the anachronisms and idiosyncrasies of his home state and its neighbors.
The best essays in the collection are those that record one event, one place, one memory. Brunner describes an unassuming barbecue restaurant and its patrons. He recalls a Bible quiz showdown at church camp. He relates a friend's encounter with Eudora Welty. Like the best work of Lewis Grizzard, Brunner's essays entertain by describing the familiar. Southern readers will nod their heads in recognition on every page. Readers from parts elsewhere will enjoy an authentic glimpse of Southern living.
Like Grizzard's, Brunner's work is funny. His analysis of Southern Provincial architecture, with its emphasis on lawn flamingos and See Rock City ads, is dead-on and hilarious. However, he falters with a few self-conscious attempts at humor. Bits on topics such as the Southern use of the phrase bless your heart read like forced Jeff Foxworthy.
The format of the book and Brunner's origins in radio invite comparisons to Garrison Keillor. Brunner has Keillor's skill in evoking a sense of community. Rather than focus on one town, however, Brunner casts a wider net, exploring topics such as language, food, and style that pervade the entire region. Due South is as engaging, as entertaining, and as charming as the South itself.
Taylor Cates is a reviewer in Memphis, Tennessee.