Best of LSU Fiction
Edited by Nolde Alexius and Judy Kahn
reviewed by Erin Z. Bass
Long overdue, The Southern Review’s “Best of LSU Fiction” is the first, but hopefully not the last, collection of stories by great fiction writers who have been associated with Louisiana State University. Whether professors, undergraduates, graduates or editors, the 20 writers in this anthology share a common campus experience, but are diverse in their methods of storytelling.
In the preface, co-editor Judy Kahn, who taught in LSU’s English department for 35 years, explains why she thought the compilation of this book was important for ultimately students ultimately, but also those writers and readers who want to feel connected to a literary heritage. At the time, Kahn was teaching Introduction to Fiction and decided to invite new instructor Nolde Alexius to read her story “Hush in This Heat” for her class.
“The students were spellbound,” she writes. “They never imagined that a young woman who looked about their age had written a story as rich, complex, and entertaining as this one … As it turned out, my students loved to read stories set in Louisiana, especially in Baton Rouge. They felt, as Walker Percy would have put it, ‘certified’ by seeing their own personal landscape in published fiction.”
Arranged chronologically, beginning with Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Penn Warren, best remembered for “All the King’s Men,” the book’s stories open with original author biographies that reveal the connections and influences among the writers. Readers will recognize some of the authors, like Rebecca Wells, Andrei Codrescu and Tim Parrish, while discovering others like Olympia Vernon, a graduate who received the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence in 2008, and Michael Griffith, who served as associate editor of The Southern Review.
A native of South Carolina, Griffith says arriving in Louisiana for the MFA program at LSU was like entering a different world. “I came from a not dissimilar landscape, the lowcountry of South Carolina, but that’s where the similarity ended. I was amazed and enraptured by the pleasure-seeking culture.”
Griffith’s entry in “Best of LSU Fiction” is titled “Flood Festival” and details a day in the life of Egyptian graduate student Seti, who discovers how the residents of his Baton Rouge neighborhood cope with a flood. Griffith says the story is based on a flood he experienced while living in his Tigerland apartment, near campus, one summer. “I was wading down to Circle K to get something to eat, and it was like a festival,” he says. “Jamboxes were out, inflatable rafts. When I got there, there was not a single beer in the total store. In South Carolina, people would be wondering why God delivered this plag on them, and in Louisiana, it’s an occasion for party.”
Readers who attended LSU during the 1990s may recognize a few of Griffith’s characters, who were fixtures on campus at the time. There’s a guy in a tweet jacket and glasses who carries a sketchbook everywhere and a man with a whistle who directs traffic from a bench at the bus stop. “Another passage includes a recognizable English department faculty member walking through the quad,” he says. “Big public university Southern towns attract a lot of people who stay there and become these larger than life eccentrics.”
“Best of LSU Fiction” is proof that Southern university towns also contain plenty of fodder for writers. Whether it’s a flood, car accident, theater performance, local dry cleaning shop, football star or full-blown hurricane that inspired the story, those in this anthology are sure to entertain readers and alums from any campus.
“Best of LSU Fiction” is available for $19.95 on The Southern Review website.