Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The South, in Short

Fans with an ear for NPR, train your eyes on R. Scott Brunner.

By Leonard Gill

JUNE 28, 1999: 

Due South: Dispatches from Down Home by R. Scott Brunner, Villard, 192 pp., $19.95

Call it miracle or call it talent, but the word for R. Scott Brunner's Due South is sweet as opposed to saccharine.

Brunner, commentator on Mississippi Public Radio and contributor to National Public Radio's All Things Considered, has collected 37 bite-sized pieces on a subject close to home (the South). Syrup is what you're dreading (the South recollected). But hard lessons (delivered, it's true, with charm and some wit) is what you're served. Add to this the fact that Brunner is executive vice president of the Mississippi Association of Realtors and -- nothing against realtors -- the balance would seem to tip in favor of miracle. This, though, would discount Brunner's talent, and that would be wrong. The nature of that talent? Knowing when to pull just short of the candy-coated and cloying.

By way of examples, consider for starters Due South's closing essay "4:00 A.M." In place of a father feeding, then gently trying to quiet his newborn twins at an ungodly early hour, what we get are the makings of a monster: "There have been times during the past few weeks ... when I'd sooner sell my three-month-old boys to the circus than spend another moment dealing with them. Maybe I'm a ... sociopath. At four A.M., I realize I certainly don't have what it takes to be a mommy. I'm barely making it as a dad." Sunrise, however, we're told, has a way of clearing the mind of thoughts of "screaming, running out, stowing away on the next freighter north."

Or this example, from "My Neighbor," on the sudden, suburban death of the guy next door, about whom Brunner sought to know nothing, including the man's very name: "... I'm truly ashamed. Ashamed that I've used my electronic garage-door opener as a door closer, a tool for insulating me and my family from the chore of maintaining relationships with people whom I've presumed I have nothing in common with. ... I wonder now how I grew ... into a man who's poured his energies into his work community and church community and even an Internet community -- and overlooked the nameless neighbor at his own back fence."

Or this, on a chaperoned ride the author and his "classmates" (in something called Leadership Jackson) took into the Mississippi capital's poorest district: "... [T]he foundations of my well-ordered, antiseptic little world were shaken, and I was sickened and ashamed to stare full face into what my eyes have been conveniently avoiding for too long: gut-wrenching poverty. People hurting, right under my nose, and I've done nothing. Nothing at all." Whether, since this visit, Brunner's made a start to do something at all is, however, something left hanging.

What's not left hanging from Due South are the author's more light-hearted asides, whether they be on the topic of a well-turned-out mess of turnip greens, what Southerners mean when they "bless your heart," what is and is not the proper method of rearing (not raising) a child born on native soil, what accounts for the inherent fear fathers have of so much as changing a diaper, by what means one meets a true cross-section of the populace (try Arthur's barbecue in Collins, Mississippi), what the reigning Miss Mississippi means to the mental health of her state, and what, by Brunner's thinking, a Berlitz course in Southern sayings by rights must include.

This is colorful, well-grounded material with which to entertain a listening or reading audience. For the top-notch in Due South, though, see "Making Soup," Brunner's dawn-to-dusk re-creation of what used to amount to an extended family's coordinated undertaking, headed by a no-nonsense grandmother. The details here are crisp, and for something inside the space of only six pages, you get the markings of sustained narrative.

The author in his introduction describes this collection as "simple, warm, and part of an overall pattern; a patchwork quilt of life in the South as I've seen it, as I've lived it. That's what stitches these dispatches together: life."

For future, fuller dispatches, here's calling for Brunner to graduate to the more exacting pattern known as "crazy" and the sweet and unsweet combination of stitchings no less known as life.

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