When the past is another country

A Week in Books
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The Independent Culture
HERE WE go again. The literary autumn will witness a fierce battle for sales and readers between the heaviest guns of American and British fiction. In the Redcoats' ranks, new works from the likes of Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks and (whether he likes his uniform or not) Martin Amis stand poised and ready to charge. The US invaders number Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth, Jane Smiley, Gore Vidal and Robert Stone in their vanguard. And, already, the vociferous Fifth Column on these shores is urging an unconditional surrender.

In last weekend's Sunday Times, Jason Cowley rehearsed the familiar English kowtow to the superior fire-power of the Yanks. American novels are excitingly "in thrall to the present", runs this old song; the Brits bang on about their fading past. The Americans embrace modernity and hope; Brits slink back into all that stale stuff about world wars, slavery and Empire. And so, predictably, on.

Erroneously, too. Turn to recent major US fiction, and do you find an echo of the Henry Ford opinion on past events? Hardly. Charles Frazier's superselling Cold Mountain? An 1860s tale of the rigours of war. Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter? The prelude to the Civil War, this time, and the godly terrorism of abolitionist John Brown. Don De Lillo's Underworld? The Cold War history of his nation, no less, with a special focus on the Fifties. And in Paradise, Toni Morrison closed the loose historical trilogy that began, under slavery, with Beloved.

Now for those autumn heavyweights. In I Married A Communist, Philip Roth revisits the McCarthy witch-hunts of the early Fifties; Jane Smiley explores the social outcomes of the Civil War in The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton; and Gore Vidal sashays around his favourite bits of the 19th century once more in The Smithsonian Institution. As for Tom Wolfe's mouthwatering epic of the brash New South, A Man in Full - well, if anyone imagines that Wolfe's pulsating tableaux of the forces that shape our time do not count as contemporary social history, then I'm Edmund Wilson.

Great American fiction treats its communal past (which, in that country, encompasses the planet's memory) with the same rich mix of fret and joy, intrigue and outrage, as English, German, Indian or Brazilian writing. Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Sunday Times, may wish to abolish the past that gives people reasons to resist him; US writers never do. Look at Richard Ford's splendid new Granta Book of the American Long Story (Granta, pounds 12.99). In this anthology, history shadows the present at every turn.

Ever the courtly Southerner, Ford as editor declines to slip any of his own fine efforts into his mixed bag of 11 middle-distance fictions since 1945. More self-effacement comes in a po-faced preface that takes 30 pages to show that critics have failed to define the novella as anything more exact than "a story of intermediate length". Er, yes.

Then the fun starts, with a spikily graceful slice of tradition-driven Southern life by Ford's mentor Eudora Welty. He allows himself a Confederate tilt throughout, with cold Northerners of the Bellow and Updike stamp nowhere to be seen. City-dwellers do poorly, too: the road does end in the Brooklyn of Edwidge's Danticat's 1995 story Caroline's Wedding, but among Haitian immigrants.

His Dixie slant aside, Ford's choices span vast tracts of space and time, deep gulfs of race and class. The quality hardly ever dips. Our editor opts firmly for realism over the avant garde, and for those moments when the past and future meet.

Philip Roth's New Jersey rite-of-passage Goodbye, Columbus is here; along with the cross-racial passion (set in 1911) of Joyce Carol Oates's I Lock My Door Upon Myself; the delicate suburban angst of Jane Smiley's The Age of Grief; the elusive, Thirties Memphis demi-monde of Peter Taylor's The Old Forest; the slow heartbreak of pre-Civil Rights black family life in Ernest J Gaines's A Long Day in November; and (for me, the highlight in a brilliant field) the terrifying descent of Europe's ghosts on Miami retirees in Cynthia Ozick's Rosa. According to the Cowley line, Ozick's career-long preoccupation with the enduring presence of the past (the Holocaust, to be precise) should brand her as a gutless, backward-looking Brit. I would love to hear this Bronx firecracker of a writer answer him.

History-haunted, family-bound, more soulful than purely cerebral, Ford's America does look less urban, cool and smart than some versions. Yet, just when you imagine that this volume will reach the syllabus of every genteel college, he plays a wild card. The Making of Ashenden by Stanley Elkin is a savage hippie-era provocation that begins with a grotesque satire on the super-rich and then segues into an alarming beast-fable that crosses not the cultural, but the species divide - like Ovid rescripted by William Burroughs. This piece alone should keep Ford's engrossing tome off reading lists across the Bible Belt. American writers - even Dixie gents - do like to keep a joker up their sleeve.