It is nearly impossible for any Southern writer to avoid the specter of William Faulkner. The world he created in Yoknapatawpha County, perhaps the best-known plot of literary real estate, exerts its influence over the aspirations of the region's writers and the expectations of readers and critics. It could therefore be construed as an act of either bravado or foolishness that Randall Kenan, who lives in Memphis and was raised in North Carolina, has also constructed a fictional Southern locale, a swampy speck called Tims Creek, N.C. "I could have run," says Kenan, 37, of the inevitable comparisons, "but I'd be spending a lot of energy in vain. It's like the Bible in that sense. Faulkner's language is just a part of you."
Kenan does not, however, shy away from reinterpreting the sacred texts. While Faulkner explored the remnants of a failed white aristocracy, Kenan is concerned mainly with Tims Creek's black population, descendants of the former slaves who founded the town. This network of working-class families, introduced in his novel A Visitation of Spirits (1989) and the short-story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992), recurs in the novel he is currently writing, Fire and the Baptism, due early next year. It is a community clinging to the traditions of the past while grappling with the pressures of the modern-day South. In A Visitation of Spirits, Kenan writes how a town once bound by the practice of harvesting tobacco by hand withers with mechanization.
Not surprisingly, Tims Creek is much like Chinquapin, N.C., the impoverished outpost where Kenan grew up "going to hog killings one minute and watching Star Trek the next." He was sent there at six weeks old by his parents, who were unmarried and residing in New York, to be reared by his great-aunt. His upbringing became the collective endeavor of a group of elderly relatives with abiding faith in both religion and folklore who spent endless hours telling fantastical stories--"tales of ghost dogs and people rising from the dead." The residue of these stories has found its way into Kenan's fiction. In the short story Clarence and the Dead, the young title character demonstrates an unnerving gift of clairvoyance: "He told Sarah Phillips to stop fretting, that her husband forgave her for the time she tried to stab him with that hunting knife; he told Cleavon Simpson his mama despised him for tricking her to sign all of her property over to him...he told people things a four-year-old boy ain't had no business knowing the language for, let alone the circumstances around them. All from people dead, five, six, ten, twenty and more years." In Tims Creek, spirits, zombies and mystics are as real as tobacco fields and televisions.
"One of the things I have always taken issue with in Southern literature is that it is almost all rooted in social realism," says Kenan. "I grew up around people who took the Bible literally, and still do." So in college, when Kenan first read such South American authors as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he abandoned his plans to be a physicist and turned to writing. "When I encountered writers who wrote about spirits like they would changing a carburetor, I realized you can come at this form from an entirely different vantage point."