Review by David Starkey
Living blue in the red states is no easy matter, but New York Times “contributing opinion writer” Margaret Renkl, whose beat is the “flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South,” does it with verve, wit and intelligence. In her second book, Graceland, At Last, a collection of her Times columns, Renkl excoriates the excesses of the Southern GOP while rhapsodizing about the region’s natural beauty and kindhearted people.
Graceland, At Last begins with a section entitled “Flora & Fauna,” and readers of her previous book, Late Migrations, will find this material satisfyingly familiar. Another section, later in the book, called “Environment,” has a more polemical take on the natural world, but it, too, features moments of close observation like this one in the column “I Have a Cure for the Dog Days of Summer,” written about the butterflies in her backyard: “One day it was all skippers—several silver-spotted skippers and a gorgeous fiery skipper—and the next it was all swallowtails. Later, “squatting to get a closer look,” she writes, “I was startled to see at least a dozen tiny yellow-and-black-striped caterpillars on the parsley I planted in case a black swallowtail needed it for a nursery. And, look, here were the baby swallowtails themselves!” Renkl writes with real excitement about not just insects, but birds and trees and rivers and snakes and flowers and eagles. Indeed, had circumstances been different, we might know her primarily as one of America’s great nature writers rather than as a newspaper columnist.
However, there are many fine nature writers, while the number of superb writers who are white Southern Christian and liberal, and who have the international reach of a weekly column in America’s “newspaper of record”—well, by my count, there is only one. It’s a big responsibility, and Renkl faces it head-on. The horror of the Trump presidency mostly looms in the shadows in the sections “Politics & Religion” and “Social Justice”; instead, Renkl looks at how his lies and corruption manifested itself in the South, particularly in Tennessee.
In “Christians Need a New Right-to-Life Movement,” she wonders why those who claim to be “so deeply invested in redemption also tend to be so deeply invested in sending their fellow human beings to death row.” In “There Is a Middle Ground on Guns,” she snipes: “It’s never a good bet to look for sane behavior from the Tennessee General Assembly.” And of the 2018 shooting of four people of color by a mentally ill white man, Renkl concludes, “because Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly—owned lock, stock and soul by the National Rifle Association—will not require people to register their guns, four beautiful human beings with their whole lives ahead of them are being mourned by an entire city, and all the thoughts in the world will not bring them back to us.”
There’s plenty more righteous vitriol aimed at deserving targets throughout Graceland, At Last. (The book’s publication and Trump’s semi-exit from the political stage haven’t slowed Renkl down; see her recent column “The South’s Republicans Talk About Freedom While People Die.”) And there’s the rub, of course: much of what the non-Southern Times reader knows about the South probably comes from the Times and Renkl herself. Chances are her initial readers are liberal, with a bias towards what’s happening in the urban areas on the coasts. It’s both ironic and natural, therefore, that, even as she is chastising her fellow Southerners, she occasionally gets annoyed with outsiders who are doing the same thing. In “Reading the New South,” she references a piece she “wrote about the transcendently beautiful Mobile-Tensaw Delta, one of the most ecologically diverse places in the country.” She continues: “When I posted the link on Facebook with a note about its magic, someone commented, ‘Except that it’s in Alabama.’ As though nothing in the whole state could possibly have any value.”
Similarly, in “Shame and Salvation in the American South,” she acknowledges: “I find myself bristling at stereotypes of ‘redneck’ Southerners flying around every time news of some fresh racist or misogynistic travesty hits social media. Here’s a typical tweet (with expletives removed): ‘It’s really easy to #BoycottAlabama because who the [expletive] would ever want to go to that redneck [expletive] on purpose?’ As if the presence of something indisputably evil obviates every good thing that happens within state borders. As if such statements aren’t a transparent form of prejudice itself.”
The “Family & Community” section is, again, reminiscent of some of the pieces in Late Migrations, although the freedom of writing creative nonfiction without worrying about the constraints of a weekly column means the pieces about family members in her earlier book are generally stronger.And are some of the columns in this section a tad sentimental? Sure they are, but it seems only fair that Renkl, who looks so unsparingly on despair, should be allowed to celebrate good will and fellow feeling.
One of Renkl’s many admirable skills is her ability to zero in on the most salient aspect of the topic she is covering. That skill is on display in “So Long to Music City’s Favorite Soap Opera,” from the final section, “Arts & Culture.” Here, Renkl reflects on the disjunction between the way her city is portrayed in Nashville and the way the city actually is. However, rather simply calling out the TV show for its excesses, she notes that “it’s not entirely made up, but it’s far enough from the truth for the people who live here to wonder how such an exactingly reproduced version of the city we live in could be so unlike the city we live in.” She concludes: “Neither the best of Nashville nor the worst of Nashville is what Nashville gives us, but watching the show, we feel ourselves poised in the same kind of interstitial space: the gap between reality and imagination, between what we are and what we might yet become.” That’s a lot to get out of a soap opera.
Above all, Renkl is a master prose stylist, her generation’s E.B. White. Whatever she writes about comes alive through carefully crafted sentences in which sound and sense harmonize at the highest levels. In the book’s penultimate essay, “What Is a Southern Writer, Anyway?” Renkl brings it all back home. She argues that what “truly great writers” do—whatever their genre—is “know their communities from the inside out, as full members, and they tell the truth about what they know.” She might well be describing herself both here and later in the piece, when she asks: “What if being a Southern writer is foremost a matter of growing up in a deeply troubled place and yet finding it somehow impossible to leave?” That might sound like hell to some writers, but for Renkl it’s a job description, one—luckily for the rest of us—that she embraces each week with brio, grace and wisdom.