By Rebecca Browder
Home House Press; 2023
Paperback: $14.95
Genre: Short Stories
Reviewed by Edward Journey

Sorry Men book cover

If you’re a child and want to know the details, you must eavesdrop on your parents or the neighborhood ladies gossiping over glasses of iced tea. At least that’s how the reader learns some of the more salacious details in Rebecca Browder’s short story collection, Sorry Men in Southern Literature. These are brave, often sorrowful, slice-of-life stories that are as likely to end on a note of vague hope as bitter despair. Intrigued by the title of Rebecca Browder’s book, I suspected that some irony was intended; I was wrong. This group of somewhat interrelated stories features some truly sorry men, and a few equally sorry women.

Browder expresses her interest in the stories of “sorry men, foolish women, and lost children” and, in an introduction, dissects the chasm between “progressive” and “traditional” Southern literature. She asserts that the “traditional,” citing writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Alice Walker, has fallen out of favor to the point that contemporary authors have an aversion to “going there” at the risk of their writing careers. This is an arguable assertion, but Browder provides some interesting points to ponder and her personal reasons for “going there.”

Browder labels her own stories as “creative nonfiction,” drawn from personal observations starting with her childhood in a cotton mill village in the South Carolina piedmont region. The workers in the textile mills, including her parents, were called “lintheads.” From proud but humble beginnings, Browder earned degrees in Sociology and Public Administration, married an Alabama politician who served in Montgomery and Washington, had a daughter, traveled the world, earned an MFA in creative writing, and published several of her stories.

Browder has a penchant for to-the-point titles, beginning, of course, with the title of her collection. “Growing Watermelons and Watching Rita Gram,” “Men in Prison with Bad Teeth,” “Bobby’s Loving Wife and Murderer Forever,” and “Mama Plans to Marry the Pope and Papa Begins to Disappear” are some standout titles that give the gist of the story before the first sentence. Those opening sentences are equally to-the-point: “The morning Nicodemus Jones made the decision to kill his wife Irma, he paid a visit to his mother’s grave” begins one story; “Cudgy Waters killed his daddy the third day of seventh grade” opens another.

Clearly, the subject matter of these stories is often sensational and disturbing, but they are told with restraint – often from the point of view of children or young people – in an austere manner. They are not without humor, but the humor is often born of the absurdity of the startling events. A cuckolded husband is killed by his best friend, who also happens to be his wife’s lover, to keep from hurting his feelings. When a drug dealer reveals to his girlfriend that his mother had been his “good business partner” in crime, she responds, “It’s nice to know your mama was so good to you. She must have really loved you.” After hearing the story of Cudgy Waters’s patricide and a principal who impregnates a student, the eavesdropping narrator concludes, “But they never said anything else about either of them.” Life goes on.

In the process, we learn about life in a textile village in South Carolina and get an informative description of mill housing. “Pepsi goes for a premium in our world” and is reserved for the grownups, states a young narrator who observes a checker at the company store scolding her Aunt Earline for buying a whole carton of soft drinks. Stories happen throughout the South, but are also set in other far-flung places, including California and post-Chernobyl Russia. The grim landscapes are occasionally reminiscent of the fiction of William Gay. I lost track of the body count, but there are moments of jarring, split-second violence that take one’s breath away; lives can be changed forever in a senseless moment of time. Some stories feel like autobiographical essays, but Browder is nuanced enough that those narratives blend in with the more distanced third-person stories.

A trilogy of stories, featuring perhaps the sorriest of all the men – Jerry Wayne McCoy, is interspersed throughout the collection. Third person narratives comprise the first and middle Jerry Wayne stories and the concluding story, “Living and Almost Dying with the Devil,” gives voice to Brenda, the woman he married and abused above all others. Brenda gives advice to battered women which seems to encapsulate Browder’s main themes for the “foolish women” she evokes.

Despite the title, there are heroic and stoic men and women interspersed throughout these stories. An example is the “Papa” who exhibits saintly patience as he deals with a delusional wife; a grandmother, making sacrifices to pay for dental work for her imprisoned grandson, is heart-breaking. While abrupt, these often grim stories carry an emotional pull with unyielding candor and unnerving power. Browder calls her collection the “struggle version of what we call morality tales.”

Like Flannery O’Connor before her, Rebecca Browder hopes to “witness” to her readers. In the introduction to her book, Browder refers to the collection as her literary “last will and testament” and reveals that she is dying of ovarian cancer. After the cancer diagnosis, she writes, “I … aspired to leave something of broader value.” Rebecca Browder lost her battle with cancer in 2021. Sorry Men in Southern Literature, then, is a part of her enduring legacy. She has left behind a memorable collection of heartfelt personal observation and testimony.

Edward Journey, a retired educator and theatre professional who lives in Birmingham, regularly shares his essays in the online journal “Professional Southerner” (