North Carolina has never lacked for writers. Some of those writers were born there and moved on (O. Henry, Joseph Mitchell, David Sedaris, Thomas Wolfe—no going home for him, although he did go on. And on). Some were born elsewhere, moved in, and stuck around, (Ron Rash, Lee Smith, Nicholas Sparks, Maya Angelou). And some were homegrown and never uprooted (Reynolds Price, Timothy Tyson, Allan Gurganus). No single author has ever managed to sum up the state in all its messy contradictions, but if you read enough off the North Carolina shelf, eventually you do get a handle on a place that is both conservative and progressive, agrarian and industrial, committed to the arts and to stock car racing. That said, the books below do somehow seem to catch lightning in a bottle when it comes to encapsulating something essential about the Tar Heel State.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Once in a while, a book winds up being embraced by critics and the public. So it was in 1997 when this first novel deservedly became a bestseller and won the National Book Award. Loosely riffing on The Odyssey, it follows a wounded Civil War deserter as he makes his way home to his love in the mountains of North Carolina. That narrative twins with one about the travails of the woman waiting for the soldier, and between them, the two tales vividly conjure the danger of the time and the beauty that still abides throughout the Appalachians.
The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Tom Wolfe. If memory serves, there is only one story about North Carolina in Wolfe’s debut collection of nonfiction pieces, but that article, “Junior Johnson Is the Last Great American Hero, Yes!” may tell you more about North Carolina and the modern South than any dozen other books. When Wolfe wrote this piece at the behest of legendary Esquire editor Bob Sherrill, stock car racing wasn’t lodged in the national consciousness the way it is now. On the track and in the stands, it was the province of lower middle class whites, people who didn’t get a lot of respect from the prissier precincts above them on the social ladder. So they created their own sport, crowned their own heroes, and the South hasn’t been the same since. Wolfe nails all that in a few dozen pages, and he makes it funny. When I’m asked to explain North Carolina, I begin by asking people if they’ve read this story.
They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross. If you’re only going to write one novel, be like James Ross and write a great one. Often compared to noir classics like Double Indemnity, this book stands in the shadow of nothing. The story of murder and assorted other varieties of evil that occur at a Depression-era roadhouse out in the middle of nowhere, Ross’ story will sear itself into your brain and haunt your sleep.
Encyclopedia of North Carolina, edited by William S. Powell. Exactly what it says it is, from Aberdeen and Rockfish Railroad Company to the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. Unfortunately there is no e-version, and the hardcover weighs about as much as a small air conditioner. But if you’re driving through North Carolina, it’s well worth toting along. When you’re not reading, you can throw it in the trunk for extra ballast when your tires are navigating those red clay roads. For a little extra fun, carry a copy of The WPA Guide to North Carolina. First published during the Depression (every state got one), the Guide has general knowledge aplenty, but it also includes numerous road trips down what are now secondary roads. It’s a startling education to cruise those old highways today with this book on your lap, reading descriptions of what things looked like in the ’30s and comparing them to the contemporary view.
Bitter Blood: A True Story of Southern Family, Pride, Madness, and Multiple Murder by Jerry Bledsoe. I suppose you could read the gorgeous literary autopsy The Mind of the South by North Carolinian W.J. Cash (which is really about the mind of the Piedmont South, with its aristocrats, its obsession with a largely fictional past, and the rise of industrialization and its attendant mill village culture). Or you could have a lot more fun reading about one of the world’s most gothic families, one that ultimately embraced a fake doctor who like to dress up in military outfits, a state Supreme Court justice, and a woman around whom people kept winding up dead. If Flannery O’Connor had been a script writer for Dallas, this is what it might have looked like.