The Mississippi Review, edited in Hattiesburg, printed in Brooklyn, and disseminated worldwide, does not accept unsolicited work, but its winter 2013 compilation is diverse, as though culled from every doorstep in this hemisphere, and the next. I found myself acutely aware of the language in the journal. You can have rich ideas but spare prose, and for me, when you have both you have discovered something rich and renewable. The takeaway is clear; buy two copies, so you can draw exclamations in the margin of one and keep the other pristine.
This edition is neatly partitioned between fiction and nonfiction, but there are departures from the traditional form; for example, Adeena Reitberger’s “Tremors,” a fiction that could be construed to be a poem in its free association and succinct stanza formation. Take the following excerpts:
When you go online and take “The Existential Crisis Test,” there are four possible outcomes: Apathetic, Will to Power, Existential Crisis and Life Is Beautiful. You will score an Existential Crisis.
Get a second dog, name it Sartre. Get a cow, name it Cam-Moo.
Your father calls one night to tell you it has metastasized . . .
Q: How many existentialists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
I took the lines out of order and cut additional material in order to showcase the extraordinarily dark humor. If you read through the entire piece, it does become a fiction, however experimental in its brief, astrological achievement.
The Mississippi Review’s fiction sampling also includes another piece that is remarkably funny: Jim Gavin’s “Play the Man.” Frankly, you may not realize what you’re in for when Gavin begins: “The Romans had a hard time killing Polycarp of Smyrna. In the stadium, surrounded by bloodthirsty pagans, he heard a voice.” This story isn’t exactly about feeding a Church leader to the lions, but, in a way, that forecast could be vindicated in the sharp, smart, rollicking narrative that chronicles a young man’s coming of age without the usual suspects. One character, Tully, doesn’t have eyebrows; he has luxurious eyebrows. “Authority figures usually wore shoes,” our hero observes. And to Tully, shoeless Jesuit drop-outs enforcing a motley team of b-ball hopefuls to spend the afternoon running suicides is unremarkable. “Polycarp was schizophrenic,” said Tully. “All the saints were.”
It’s a story that answers a call for Catholic literature that is Catholic in spirit, if a little heretical in the semantics. By that I mean that it is hard not to enjoy the lovely authenticity of the teenage years, willful misconduct and general dereliction of some reluctant heroes, with a failed priest and a “Gnostic” K-Mart employee as the moral touchstones of the story. Some readers might question my averment that it is Catholic in spirit, but if you look at some of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories—a literature that has been designated the voice of the Catholic South—you see vibrant characters being tested in ways suitable to the times, and Gavin does no less. You’ll hear the quiet voice, one that says “television was the only source of light,” against “a tall, cadaverous Reaganite,” and complete heresy. But it doesn’t offend: rather, it includes a religious-based cultural tradition so popular to demonize, forget or ignore.
I’ve marked up Leslie Jamison’s essay “Saudades” almost as much as Gavin’s short story. The Mississippi Review did seem to feature a bias toward beauty, which is excellent when there are no overt poets to tinge the page. Jamison’s rich language trembles on the branch of the burning genealogical tree—which is a rather burdened way to say that she chronicles a death, a marriage, and a wildly splitting lineage during a period of time that could be ordinary, but, because of her style, is aerial. I was crying by the end and completely humbled by her spirit and her method of delivery:
I think I accepted it like people accept the seasons, their rhythms of disappearance: heat leaves, sunlight leaves, leaves leave, a father leaves. I knew the report was important but I didn’t know why. I didn’t know why my parents got divorced when he got back.
And then she defines the title: a saudade is “a longing for lost things, maybe things that never were.” There are many diverse elements in this essay, but some readers might interpret this woven, textured shroud of memory as a love story for a brother. I certainly felt that such a message—important and necessary as our families fraction—was well-written enough to stand on its own without a more specific designation, but it was a unique invocation, for one’s first friend. She concludes with a foreshadowed elegance: “. . . thank you for giving me your jacket and your prom photo and your impossible volleys and most of all for sleeping in a bed below my bed, years ago, when I didn’t know how to get through the night.”
The fiction and nonfiction in the Mississippi Review run smoothly and expertly, in essayist tradition that suits the region in its physical formation and its cultural propensities, if one might generalize. While the Mississippi Review does not purport to speak of and for a region—does not class itself beside a river bed or tributary—we see the formation of the literature to flow, to surprise curvaceously, at all times navigable at the junctures that cross straight through the heart of the country.