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There is an abundance of down-home charm in this new collection of Southern-themed stories by J.R. Greenwell, Who the Hell is Rachel Wells? It is rare to come across such rich layers of humanity in contemporary literature. Here, Greenwell serves as a tour guide, taking his readers on a love-fueled ride through the back roads and highways of his beloved Kentucky, making certain to stop along the way just long enough to shine a heartfelt light on moments that resonate with a simple beckon for true compassion.
Greenwell opens his collection with a journey. Already, we’re on the road. Yet, our destination is unknown. He writes, “The drive north on Interstate 65 was a long one for Linda and her two kids, but it was a route that they knew well.” This opening line is a summation of Greenwell’s own masterful command of storytelling: he knows his territory and doesn’t hold back from getting the most out of every sentence, every catchphrase, every instant of lifelike imagery. Clearly, like Linda, he knows the lay of the land.
Each story is a literary postcard. With memorable titles like “Silver Pumps and a Loose Nut,” “Spaghetti Kisses, ” “A Colony of Barbies,” and “Learning to Sashay like RuPaul,” it’s impossible to resist the adorable appeal of the collective world Greenwell has created on page, populated with larger-than-life characters who are each worthy of a novel of their own.
Greenwell’s ability to find the poetic in what a writer of lesser skill might not see is one of his many strengths, as in the opening lines of “Duplicity,” when we meet Mary Kay: “As she sat quietly huddled next to Chris, the security guard, Mary Kay tried to take her mind off matters by picking minute pieces of lint off her red Christmas sweater loaded with Santa appliqués and sequined snowflakes.” At once, we know who this character is, and, as with the rest of Greenwell’s cast, we want to spend as much time with her as possible.
Greenwell hits a poignant note in Learning to “Sashay like RuPaul,” a story about Ermina and Dante, two older drag queens who take newbie Angel under their glamorous wings. Dante advises to their protégé, “Your lips must be parched and your eyes in shock with what you see. Can I get you a delicious cocktail to quench your thirst while you adjust your eyes to the great beauty that stands before you?” Ermina echoes the importance of mystique and allure with, “Now let’s go put on a wonderful show for all those little butterflies out there who want to be pretty.”
Who the Hell is Rachel Wells? is exactly that: a wonderful show. Greenwell has managed to give each of his characters the beautiful performances they deserve. In doing so, he has crafted a memorable collection of short stories that will certainly establish him as a powerful new voice in Southern literature.
Who the Hell is Rachel Wells?
Chelsea Station Editions
Paperback, 9781937627126, 226 pp.