Paul Greenberg

Years ago, a decade ago, an old friend emailed me a classic Southern news story. It went down straight. Neat. Like a shot of Early Times. The story came out of the Mobile Press-Register in Alabama back when it was still a daily.

That newspaper has since been reduced to a fragment of its old self, and now puts out a print edition only three days a week. The oldest paper in that state, the Press Register or one of its predecessors had been publishing daily since the early 1800s. The same thing happened, briefly, to Louisiana's fabled Times-Picayune in New Orleans. But here was an article worthy of the old days. Or as my friend summed it up, "Now this is a news story."

It was. The headline was simple, straight-faced, and it made you want to read on: Preacher Says He Was Beaten by Mourners.

Below the hed was a story by Staff Reporter Gary McElroy, a man who had enough sense to know that, when you've got a great story, you don't embellish it. That would be to ruin it. Like putting whipped cream on Southern-fried chicken. Mr. McElroy just knew a good story when he heard it -- and how to write it up. His article began: "A ... street preacher who screamed at a funeral that the deceased was burning in hell said Tuesday he was beaten by mourners for telling the truth."

The rest of the story had just about every element of the Gothic South:

Violence, of course.

Disappointed heirs involved in a dispute over, of course, land.

And, perhaps most Southern of all, theology -- and not your nice, lukewarm, diluted mainstream variety, either. But your old-fashioned, holy-roller, speakin'-in-tongues, damnation-and-hellfire brand of religion, topped off by a fistfight. (What, no snake-handlin'?)

I had to wonder: Was this a news item or a short story by Flannery O'Connor? I laughed. I cried. I sighed. And then I was moved to repent my wasted life. I may have spent it in the geographical South but, wrapped up in the cocoon of what Walker Percy called everydayness, could I still see it? Gary McElroy could -- if this story of his was any example.

The name of the preacher in the news story was Orlando Bethel. Of course. That's almost as good as Hazel Motes, the central character in Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood." Old Hazel, big as life and twice as scary, commits his provocation right off -- in the very first chapter. That's when he tells/dares the lady sitting across from him on the train -- a Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock -- "I reckon you think you been redeemed." You know what comes next. Or you would if there was still a South somewhere, the old-time South full of old-time religion, which means full of old-time sin. Even today some Southerners may still be able to see, denounce and be obsessed by it.

Brother Bethel in Mobile admitted he was just supposed to sing at the funeral of his relative -- an uncle of his wife's who he claimed had cheated her out of her inheritance. But then "the Holy Ghost told me to really speak the truth -- I said this man was no longer with us because he is in Hell, that they needed to repent of their sins, there was a lesbian scheduled to sing, and there were fornicators...." And who knows what other outrages the Rev. Orlando Bethel had spotted at the funeral -- or imagined.

It wasn't clear which of Brother Bethel's various observations about the deceased, or about the congregants, inspired several of the brethren to take him to the back of the church later and put the hiatus on his fiery sermon. Forcibly. Nor can I vouch for how seriously he was pummeled in the process. Reports differed. But I do know that you don't read many news stories like this one anymore. Why is that? Is it part of the rampant Americanization of the South? Have we all grown as respectable as New Englanders? Or just forgotten how to tell a good story in these latitudes, once the epicenter of the American narrative tradition?

I doubt it. I bet the South is still out there, and that it holds just as many stories as it ever did. My theory is that we in the press -- excuse me, it's now The Media -- can no longer see those stories, hear them, feel them, know them. We've been to college. We have degrees in journalism. We know what an inverted pyramid is when it comes to writing a lede for a story. We know every which way to say something, it's just that we may no longer have anything to say.

In short, we've come down with a chronic case of the respectables. We've been so busy trying to be Tom Friedman, God help us, that we've forgotten how to see and feel and therefore write like Flannery O'Connor. We've had our native vision educated clean out of us, and I fear we won't be saved without being born again.

Miss Mary Flannery O'Connor was accused of writing grotesque stories, an accusation she gloried in, for she knew that depicting the grotesque, as in a Diane Arbus photograph, may say the most about the human condition, that it rips off our masks and reveals our fallen state. And that we can be saved only by grace -- His and maybe our own to one another. That's why she wrote about Hazel Motes of the not so fictive Church of Christ Without Christ.

"Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks," she famously observed, "I say it is because we are still able to recognize one."

Can we anymore? It's been more than twice 20 years now since Flannery O'Connor told a college audience in Georgia, "I hate to think that in 20 years Southern writers too may be writing about men in gray-flannel suits and may have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now."

Sure enough, now we write about the latest fraudsters in big business, or the current crop of politicos, their ups and downs and sideways, as if that were what really counted in this world and maybe the next -- the ultimate reality. As if all these people in button-down collars and pin-striped suits, and their now just as respectable female counterparts, weren't the real freaks. For not recognizing themselves as such.

Gary McElroy is retired now, but I'm happy to report that once upon a time somebody in Mobile, Alabama, still knew a good story when he heard one, and just how to tell it. Straight. Neat. In one swig that clears out the soul.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.