Dispatches From Down Home

By R. Scott Brunner

Villard. 151 pp. $19.95

R. Scott Brunner opens this collection of tidbits, mostly of a personal nature, by introducing his grandmother, "MaMa," who makes quilts from whatever scraps happen to be handy. "The essays in this book are like that, too," he writes: "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."

You don't need to be Uncle Remus or Melanie Wilkes to figger out from them words that what we've got in these "dispatches" is mostly what some disenchanted student of Southern writin' once called its "shucks-'n'- nubbins" school: tiny ears of rustic corn. Brunner seems to be a nice man, and no doubt he loves the life he's lived in Mississippi and Alabama every bit as much as he says he does, but unless undiluted shucks-'n'-nubbins is your cup of corn, you'll find that a little bit of "Due South" goes a very long way, if not a fur piece.

Brunner is executive vice president of the Mississippi Association of Realtors, which does not seem the most likely seedbed for literary or even journalistic ambitions, but in his spare time he does commentaries for the state's public radio system. Some of these are picked up by National Public Radio, which has a pronounced weakness for what it fancies to be local color and has a barnful of cud-chewers out thar in the sticks, all of them just champin' to get in front of the microphone and tell the world about their grandpappies and their family Bibles and their li'l postage stamps of native soil.

As an example of the last, you'd be hard pressed to find one more steeped in hominy than a piece of Brunner's called "Arthur's," wherein he describes a Mississippi "barbecue joint" where, reports of Dixie's demise notwithstanding, "I found the South." Yep, and here's what he found:

"I'm guessing that those folks--the ones who say the South is lost--are just looking for it in the wrong places. It may not be at Harrah's casino or under the Golden Arches or anywhere near an Interstate highway, with those cookie-cutter shopping centers and chain stores. Instead, the South is right where it's always been--off the beaten path, among the folks in places like Arthur's Barbecue in Collins, Mississippi, where the smiles are genuine and talk of the weather is scintillating; where little old ladies take lunch and help each other along; and where farmers trade fishing stories and bow their heads to give thanks; and where a Southern boy can get a delicious pork sandwich and an iced tea at a fair price."

Seems to me like that fella's been mainlining Garrison Keillor, but what do I know, I'm just a cynical Yankee from the Big City, even if in the past I did get enough North Carolina tar on my heels to be able to say "yawl" and "yonder" and "reckon." Speakin' of which, there is one thing that Brunner actually does very well. When he stops plunkin' the strings of his banjo and starts in to writin' about the ways Southerners speak, he knows whereof he writes.

Thus he has, for example, a charming and perceptive little piece about "bless your heart," that double-edged all-purpose phrase that can be both a "sympathetic colloquialism" ("Couldn't find a parking space? Bless your heart") and a "preferred way of pointing out another person's inadequacies, of mentioning what otherwise would be unmentionable in polite conversation," to wit: "Bless your heart, Billie Sue, you put dark meat in your chicken salad," or, "Poor thing got knocked up at the prom, bless 'er heart," or, "Bless her heart, Kathie Lee didn't know those clothes were made by nine-year-old Honduran children."

That's absolutely true, and funny into the bargain. Ditto for "Southern Berlitz," Brunner's exploration of the region's vernacular, and "Shirley Goodness and the Cross-Eyed Bear," in which he recalls that "when I was a child, I understood as a child--which made for some pretty interesting interpretations of the songs we sang at church," i.e., "Round John Virgin, mother and child," or "Lead On, O Kinky Turtle," or "Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me." No one who remembers trying to make sense of the mysterious verses chanted in church by pious parents and other adults will fail to recognize the accuracy of Brunner's ear.

A bit more of that and a bit less of shucks-'n'-nubbins, and "Due South" would go down a whole lot easier. But don't try to read it in its present form unless you've got a medicine cabinet full of bicarbonate of soda.