Local journalist accents the marginal in audacious fiction debut
There’s something magical about being recognized in fiction. It’s not so much the business, often unsettling, of being identified, of having your story inserted into another, but of being shown a view of the world that so resonates with your own experience that it feels like home.
Even, perhaps especially, if that home is imperfect.
In The Ballad of Cherrystoke & Other Stories, Melanie McGee Bianchi’s remarkable, darkly funny, and often affecting collection of eleven short stories (Blackwater Press, 2022), the author never identifies her geography by name. As an Asheville native, however, I recognized its riverside bars, resort-staff accommodations, winding mountain roads, and rural hollers newly breached by outsiders.
Originally from northern rural New York State, Bianchi came to Western North Carolina in the early 1990s. She spent a summer working at the Pisgah Inn, floated through Cullowhee and Cherokee, and lived, for a while, on Lake Glenville in Jackson County, in employee housing for seasonal workers at the nine country clubs between Sapphire, Cashiers, and Highlands.
“Those places were the townie-versus-visitor dynamic as experienced in petri-dish intensity,” says Bianchi. “Resort-employee life, at least in the ’90s, was a turmoil of drinking, drugs, and seedy hookups in breathtaking settings.”
She captures something of this lifestyle in the book’s opening eponymous story, which tells of a young resort employee and her wayward, would-be freighthopper brother in the scenic liminal space between a difficult past and unknowable future. (The story was first published in the Mississippi Review’s Summer Prize Issue 2020.)
Bianchi moved to Asheville, embarked on a career in local journalism, and spent the rest of the ’90s living adjacent its rapidly changing urban center. This was not the glittering Jazz Age milieu of historical Asheville, but a world of underpaid young people, stuck by choice or circumstance in what she recalls as a “grittier, and I would argue, more soulful” version of the city today.
Two of the stories, “Killing Frost” and “Bad Tooth Brandon,” Bianchi describes as “straight Kodachrome of downtown Asheville at various points in the ’90s.” Both unearth a sense of real melancholy, a needling desperation that feels as sincere a part of young life as the sometimes ridiculous, usually makeshift circumstances of the characters.
But not all of Ballad of Cherrystoke is a Western North Carolina nostalgia exercise. Many of the stories express an urban-rural divide informed, in part, by Bianchi’s childhood growing up in a dairy hamlet where head of cattle outnumbered humans three to one. “The Miracle of Flight,” a kind of dark fairytale populated by bored preteen girls, is based on the farm property Bianchi lived on as a child.
“I ended up setting ‘Miracle of Flight’ in the South by changing out only Concord grapes to Muscadine,” says Bianchi. That subtle tension between country and city becomes much more explicit in “A Day on Saturn,” in which a sheltered older woman is pressured to short-term-rent her remote mountain property, with unexpected results.
Despite the story settings, Bianchi doesn’t feel comfortable calling herself a Southern writer. “I have the experience but not the blood,” she says. “My scope is examining the particular, and I don’t feel qualified to address huge issues.”
But the stories summon a powerful state of mind. Bianchi’s easy wit, lyric turns of phrase, and keenly drawn characters signal the arrival of an exciting author operating at the very highest level.
The Ballad of Cherrystoke & Other Stories is available at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St., Asheville); at Highland Books (36 West Main St., Brevard); or from blackwaterpress.com. The North Carolina Writers Network hosts Bianchi at The Brandy Bar (504 East 7th Ave., Hendersonville) on Wednesday, Sept. 14, at 7pm. For more information, see ncwriters.org or “The Brandy Bar + Cocktails” on Facebook.