Book Review : People Living and Dying in Passion of Small Town

Anna L.M.N.O. by Sarah Glasscock (Random House: $17.95. 344 pages)

Anna, a hairdresser pushing 30, who works in a West Texas town called Alpine, thinks at the beginning of this novel that last names don't really matter. Between fathers and stepfathers, husbands and ex-husbands, she's had more last names than she can keep track of. By the end of the novel, this problem is resolved, thus the unique if studied whimsicality of the title.

Anna used to live in Sanderson, and she's going to live in Marfa--Anna's a nomad; she travels light. In spite of that, Anna has her own encumberances; who among us does not? There's her first husband, Ronnie Mauss, whom she married as a teen-ager. When he bashed her a couple of times, she bailed out of the relationship, making her hasty exit through a back bedroom window. Husband No. 2 is a nice man named Bryan: Anna married him to give him a green card--though why, with a straight-up name like Bryan, he needs one, is never made clear. Also, Anna's got a ditz-mom who drives her crazy, a sweet stepfather whose love (or money) she can't accept, and a phantom dad--a one-night stand of her mothers, who lives far more in memory than he ever did in "real life."

Great With Hair

Anna's not very good with real life, but she's excellent with hair. She works in a small shop with Mary Frances, tiresome manager; Liz, a teary wife putting her husband through school, and with Jo, a chain-smoking Rock of Gibraltar whose black-dyed hair defies gravity; whose heart is as big as the Ritz. It would seem that Jo has been dealt a bad hand by life, but has played that hand pretty well. Although her husband once broke her arm in an argument, she's stayed with him for 30 years. Depending on your point of view, Jo is only batting .500 (to change metaphors) with her two sons: One is in the Marines, the other one gay, but she loves them both.

All these characters, and the plot hasn't even started yet! It does when Grace Ettinger, a fed-up housewife on the other side of town, kills herself, and Anna must do her hair for one last time. Grace's daughter, Delia, wants to know why. Anna sees in this question a yearning for another mom, and Anna doesn't want to be a mom. Grace's husband, Ed, raises catfish for a living; he sees that he and Anna have a great deal in common: "The tools of our trade might be different, but the same thing drives us, a certain vision, a love."

Ed loves his land, his catfish, and, refusing to feel guilt over Grace's death, he sets his sights on Anna, who, because she's never gotten a square shake from any man, has already decided that all she wants is to own the beauty shop. Then the plot thickens up once more: Combing out Jo's dyed black hair, Anna discovers disquieting streaks of silver. Indeed, Jo too is dying, of cancer, and she refuses to "fight" it. Anna sees this as another betrayal; there's nothing at all left that she can count on. . . .

What "Anna L.M.N.O." excels at is conjuring up both the quiet and the passion in a small town, particularly a desert town, where sand and heat and distance and water (or the lack thereof) make up a large, grand Chorus. Under the trivialities (should the remodeled shop have pink Formica counters or not?) the lives these people live are noble and great. Some characters here risk their lives daily. (This part can't be given away.) Others, in their dogged quest for love, are just as heroic.

Not Worth the Pain

And Anna, in her stubborn rejection of any aspect of companionship that might tie her back in to the human race, is serious--if misguided--in the way she lives. Based on her experience, it's not worth loving and being loved. Even the shop she has schemed to buy isn't worth having, if it carries strings of concern and love.

What a lot of fine new Southern writing we're seeing these days! Writers like Pat Ellis Taylor, Barbara Kingsolver, Clyde Edgerton, present us with characters deeply involved in "obscure," previously unrecorded existences. These writers never patronize their characters, or their dignity in any way. Now Sarah Glasscock joins these writers, raising their stature as well as her own.

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