Fred Chappell Essay - Critical Essays

Fred Chappell Short Fiction Analysis

Like his contemporaries Reynolds Price and Peter Taylor, Fred Chappell draws on his rural southern background for much of his fiction. However, Chappell is not easily pigeonholed as a “southern writer.” His short fiction includes, in addition to tales in the southern folk tradition, period stories with European settings, and tales of the supernatural. The forms Chappell’s stories take also vary widely, from realistic drama to biblical allegory, gothic fantasy, and whimsical humor.

Most of Chappell’s stories are character-driven and concerned with personal ideals challenged by private experience. John Lang, in his essay “Illuminating the Stricken World: Fred Chappell’s Moments of Light,” locates the dramatic core of Chappell’s stories in the “conflict between transcendent and temporal values” that ensues when characters cling to noble beliefs that are either naïve or outmoded in the world at large. This conflict manifests as a tension between opposites incarnated in the story’s different characters: the traditional and the modern, the sacred and the profane, the civilized and the primitive, the artistic and the scientific, the rational and the irrational. Chappell’s stories often focus on family relationships, notably fathers and sons embarked on rites of passage from childhood innocence to adult experience. Notwithstanding the “fallen world” that Lang feels this clash of values presupposes, Chappell’s outlook is essentially optimistic. His innocent characters are rarely crushed by their experiences. They emerge edified, rather than disillusioned, and with a broadened base of experience.

“The Maker of One Coffin”

“The Maker of One Coffin” is typical of Chappell’s tales in the southern folk tradition, presenting a slice of rural life with gentle humor that softens its account of young Jess’s passage from childhood innocence to adult experience through an early encounter with death. Uncle Runkin, a visiting relative from Jess’s mother’s side of the family, is a death-obsessed man who sleeps in a coffin and reads tombstone epitaphs for amusement. Joe Robert, Jess’s practical-minded father, teases Uncle Runkin relentlessly for his morbidness. Uncle Runkin and Joe Robert represent the opposite extremes of attitudes toward death between which Jess must choose or find a middle ground. As a joke, Jess and his father put a skeleton borrowed from the local school in the coffin, hoping to scare Uncle Runkin.

The next day, Runkin gives no clue that the prank has worked, but the skeleton is missing. Jess sneaks into Runkin’s room to look for the skeleton and, attracted to Runkin’s coffin, climbs into it and has a comforting vision of death, which is interrupted when the startled Runkin walks in on him. Uncle Runkin leaves the next day, to his and the family’s relief, and the mystery of the skeleton is solved when it is discovered that he has disarticulated it and secreted all of the bones in 3,034 hiding places around the house. An older Jess muses how, for the next twenty years, “When you went looking for a Mason jar rubber or a length of string you would turn up a toebone or a metacarpal”—a lesson, perhaps, that even when we choose to ignore it, death is an inescapable part of life.

“Blue Dive”

The themes of Chappell’s stories often resonate with myth and legend, giving them a timelessness. “Blue Dive,” set in a southern roadhouse in the 1970’s, is a variation on the folktale of John Henry in which Chappell explores the clash of traditional and modern values. Elderly African American blues guitarist Stovebolt Johnson arrives in a small southern town to take a job offer made three years earlier to perform regularly at the Blue Dive roadhouse. The roadhouse...

(The entire section is 1559 words.)