Lewis Nordan’s Southern Freak Show

The All-Girl Football Team – Louis Nordan (1989, Vintage)

There’s an art to short stories. The best authors capture their world in only a few pages; a great collection of them is like a very good compilation album: there’s little to no filler and while it helps to go in fits and starts, taking a moment to relax between stories, it’s hard to not just sit there and go through the entire thing at once.

Lewis Nordan’s The All-Girl Football Team is not one of those collections. It’s something of a mixed bag of short fiction where some of the stories are directly related and they’re all kind of related in locale: this slim volume of stories is all about the south. Taken as a whole, it’s an uneven and slightly off-kilter collection, with the individual stories ranging from decent to good.

The best two stories here, the title story and Sugar Among the Chickens, take place in Arrow Catcher, Mississippi. It’s a small town something like a Lynch movie: a trailer of dwarfs next door, Episcopalians roaming around the country in a van and a mom who reads the Sears catalogue, inventing backstories for the models inside. Here, he’s at his best, showing a gift for mixing the absurd with the dark: these are odd tales that flip from being funny to depressing without changing a beat. And when he’s on, the stories are all slightly connected in the same universe, with characters and references popping up between stories. His Arrow Catcher is an interesting, planned out place, even if it sometimes reads like a failed novel, split up into chunks.

But when he retreats from Arrow Catcher, as he does in the bulk of the book, he fails down hard. His mock-Faulkner story A Farmer’s Daughter is an incoherent mess, rambling between bad jokes, bears and trying too hard to be something different. There are other missteps, like a story about a young man who cares of a man in a wheelchair (and quickly focuses on shitting). These missteps mar the book and keep me from recommending, even if I liked the Arrow Catcher stories and even if you can only buy this book for a penny used.

My rating: 4/10. Not really recommended, even for short story fans. There are some nice highs here but the lows dragged this slim volume down for me. A better choice would be a later compilation, Sugar Among the Freaks, which combines the best of both this and another volume of Nordan’s short fiction, while omitting some of the junk.

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