To anyone familiar with Bobbie Ann Mason’s previous works (five books, which include the much praised post-Vietnam era novel, “In Country,” and most recently, “Spence + Lila”), the characters and settings found in these new stories will be recognizable. We are, again, in western Kentucky, puttering around Paducah, “the flat squirrel capital of the world,” as one character says, referring to all the hapless creatures leveled on the road by Paducahns, rushing to the malls and tanning salons.
Who are these people? They are waitresses and beauticians and clerks at Wal-Mart, people who drive cars with mufflers wired to the door-handles to keep them from falling off. They shop discount stores and collect food stamps, and believe in their bumper stickers (“A woman’s place is in the mall”). They listen to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll and mourn the loss of Elvis. The men drink too much but are sure they won’t become alcoholics on beer. The women can’t seem to define what they want, let alone find it. They are caught in one cliche after another: Everybody’s on the make; it’s hard not to get your hopes up too much; you can’t live with regret; it’s awful hard to look forward when there’s so little to count on.
The stories in “Love Life” are all about love, it’s true, but they are also about the ways in which ordinary people are caught up in the pernicious consumption of popular culture, which has packaged even love in riotously vulgar imagery proposing banal formulas for happiness. Phil Donahue is their guru; when he speaks, they listen up.
They are not fools, however; they are seekers with special poignancy because they rarely get the long view that might help them understand what’s happening to them. What keeps them from buying the talk-show banalities whole hog are the rural-values common sense instilled over generations and not easily forgotten, but it’s an unlikely combination of impulses, things constantly at odds, like a meal of collard greens and Big Macs.
In “Hunktown,” for instance, Joan is on her second marriage, to Cody, a good looking guy who’s always wanted to cut a record album. He’s laid off work and drinking too much, but he decides now’s the good time to pursue his singing career, so he heads for Memphis, where he gets a few gigs. He wants Joan to sell the family farm and move to Memphis with him, but she says no. She’s suspicious of his longing to be in the spotlight. She even thinks he might be cheating on her.
“You’re not Elvis,” she tells him. “And selling the place is too extreme. Things can’t be all one way or the other. There has to be some of both. That’s what life is, when it’s any good.” Cliche? Yes, there’s a whole kettle of them here. But the story manages to find an emotional censor far removed from the banal, largely through the accumulation of beautiful detail, dead-on dialogue, and above all, the sense of a heart-felt quest for proper boundaries, which is at the center of all of Mason’s writing.
Almost every story tells of divorce, confusion, longing, a sense of something missing from life. Characters often have the choice of remaining mired in unhappy relationships or trying to extricate themselves, but you don’t get the sense that anyone succeeds in resolving anything.
If there is a shortcoming here it’s that characters often seem too much alike. For instance, in the story “Memphis,” Beverly, who is being pressured by her ex-husband Joe to get back together, could almost be the same person as Liz, a woman who’s cheating on her husband in “Sorghum.” They even have the similar troubles: “You’re so full of warmth you don’t know what you want,” Joe tells Beverly; “Danny was right about the way she always wanted something she didn’t have,” thinks Liz.
In “Big Bertha Stories,” a Vietnam vet suffering from post-war Trauma (who seems a little like Emmett from the novel “In Country”) is a strip-miner who only comes home sporadically, and entertains his wife and child with fantastic and rather frightening tales about a mythical machine called “Big Bertha.” Although the story doesn’t really take off until half way through, it finally builds to a spooky conclusion as the wife leaves her shaking husband in a VA hospital: “Rest was what he needed.” Later, she has a nightmare, and it seems she has now assimilated her husband’s ghoulish obsessions. “In her dream, she is jumping on soft moss and then it turns into a springy pile of dead bodies.”
“Private Lives” examines the guilt a divorced couple feel over giving up a baby for adoption 18 years earlier. They have an affair, as if this act might recapture some of what’s been lost, but the story ends on a beach in Florida, with the couple walking along the sand, stepping on seashells, “crunching the fragments of skeletons.”
Fragments of skeletons, a pile of dead bodies; these aren’t reflections of a happy state of affairs. We are left wondering just what sort of world Mason has chosen to portray.
I think it’s a world quite close to the one we actually live in, and I don’t mean just the Paducahns. All around us, cliches rule and loneliness is epidemic. A memory of something lost bothers us. We seek extensions of ourselves, a community, and instead find only a conglomeration of private cells. The problems of the children (divorce, insecurity, unhappiness) are also the problems of the parents, as if a malaise has infected our guides and erased the generational line that once existed. Raymond Carver was the first in our time to echo the hollow state of affairs with perfectly reflective, flattened prose. Bobbie Ann Mason accomplishes a similar feat. These stories work like parables, small in scale and very wise, tales wistfully told by a masterful stylist whose voice rises purely from the heart of the country.