A CONGRESS OF WONDERS by Ed McClanahan (Counterpoint: $21; 161 pp.). It’s for good reason that Ed McClanahan sets his fiction in Needmore, Ky., because all his characters are missing something, be it brains, morals, initiative or just plain good luck. McClanahan, a former Merry Prankster and author of the much-praised “The Natural Man,” in this three-story collection gives us eccentric Southern no-accounts by the truckload, but makes sure, as their self-appointed guardian angel, that they get through life’s tribulations with a modicum of dignity.
In the title story, a boy begins to comprehend the ambiguities of adulthood at a carnival midway show; in “Juanita and the Frog Prince,” the wrathful, much-abused town freak--he has two noses--escapes a murder charge with an ingenious, magical transubstantiation; in “Finch’s Song: A School Bus Tragedy,” a sickly young man finds a kind of redemption in fatally defying his malignant half-brother.
These synopses do McClanahan an injustice, however; as with Mark Twain and Flannery O’Connor, it’s not the plotting that matters but the telling, which is often--again as with like Twain and O’Connor--simultaneously wicked, compassionate, and hilarious.
As Professor Philander Cosmo Rexroat, B.S., M.S., PhD (also known as Archbishop of the Canvas Cathedral of the Resurrection, the Light, the Divine Afflatus, and the Main Chance), might say as he fleeces those hoping to run him out of town, “The Lord tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, and sweeter than sweet are the uses of adversity!”