Editor’s Dive into the Archives: Chris Swensen on Dixie Whistle by Neil Serven

If you are a reader like me, you may have a deep abiding skepticism of 1980s nostalgia and the well-worn tropes of coming-of-age stories. Yet despite this the Neil Serven story “Dixie Whistle” maddeningly blends these exact elements and masterfully makes a touching and funny portrait of adolescent loneliness. Sure, there’s your 10-year-old protagonist and her obsession with CB radios, there’s collecting The Empire Strikes Back commemorative cups from Burger King, and there are even the last vestiges of a romantic trucker lifestyle of a bygone era. Yet at its heart, “Dixie Whistle” manages to gracefully and subtly balance these elements enough to be a compelling story about a young unwitting nomad finding much-needed connection and escape by calling out over the radio waves like B.J. and the Bear. It’s exactly the kind of story you want to discover in a journal; the story that exceeds expectations and elevates the use of those elements you thought you were more than done with. In this case those are elements you had your fill of since the last time you dared read Look Homeward, Angel or watched Netflix’s Stranger Things. Yet, writer Neil Serven takes those elements and makes something oddly beautiful and charming here. These elements are brought together with more subtly and grace in this piece than is found in today’s Nostalgia Industrial Complex or typical coming-of-age stories.

The story follows 10-year-old Candy who fled with her mom from an abusive household in Connecticut. They share a small house in Georgia with Candy’s aunt Vicki and older cousin Maxine. Despite this crowded arrangement the story perfectly captures a kind of helpless loneliness that comes with being younger than those intertwined with the complexities and desires of adult life. When Candy was younger her cousin Maxine was like a sister “but Maxine’s got boyfriends now, wears tank tops and has boobs, and is hardly ever home” (74). Her mom spends all her time working at Upton’s, or later on in the story, with her new boyfriend Philip. Even her mother is made unfamiliar by the pursuits of adulthood; “When they go out, it’s often the three of them packed in a row in the cab of Philip’s truck with Candy on the hump, the radio playing the twangy music they like down here that Ma was never into before she met Philip but suddenly she knows the words to, sings along to sometimes” (86). What is Candy to do with this lonely restlessness? She takes to the CB Radio, giving herself the titular moniker “Dixie Whistle.”

Before the COPS born infamy of “lot lizards” and the near corporate consolidation of the trucking industry by companies like C.R. England, there was still a nomadic romanticism in the idea of the trucker lifestyle in the 1980s. That romanticism enthralls our protagonist, who being an unwitting nomad herself can’t help but live vicariously through a hardy and charming lady trucker called “Sandstorm.” Something of a relationship develops between Candy and Sandstorm, at first over the airwaves, and then in person as Candy makes a daring outing to the local truck stop. There she meets Sandstorm and the prose in this charming moment perfectly captures the way that just being close to Sandstorm has a surreal and empowering effect that is shown in heightened physicality; Sandstorm buys Candy a Coca-Cola “which Candy sips from a glass bottle that feels cold and substantial in her hand” (81). This desire to live vicariously through a figure like Sandstorm speaks to Candy’s desire to seek out a restless lifestyle on her own terms; a restless lifestyle where fellow nomads are charming, rugged, and most importantly, just one radio squawk away.

“Dixie Whistle” can be found in Issue 107 of The Greensboro Review.


Chris Swensen is from the radioactive mountains and valleys of southern Idaho. He is a second-year MFA candidate in fiction at UNC Greensboro and current Fiction Editor for The Greensboro Review