Book Review : Climbing Up and Down the Social Ladder in the South

Dreaming in Color by Ruth Moose (August House: $15.95; 192 pages)

It's very hard to write about people who are poorer and sadder and weirder than you without being condescending. Ruth Moose writes about her people with exasperation but real respect.

The characters in the 19 stories that make up "Dreaming in Color" sport names such as Fronnie and Therma and Ladella and Thildalee. They live in somnolent Southern communities where any life of commerce or fun is fading fast: "The town is dead enough as it is," one lady thinks. "We don't need any more buildings to sit and watch run down. If it wasn't for the bank, drugstore, hardware, and Baptist Church, we could just close up shop. Strike Eddysville off the map--if it's on any. I'm the only business still open on my side of the street and it's awful."

Ruth Moose's people tread that sad and narrow path between the hard-earned probity of the lower-middle classes--bridge mints and broccoli casseroles, and tarnished family silver--and the bleak wastes of hopeless White-Trashdom. Often the two classes share a single residential lot in town: The reputable families renting out a garage apartment to a poor and seedy "married" couple who aren't really married; who won't go to church or bring a covered dish to a picnic. The "wife," of course, will soon be abandoned.

The Last Agent

When money and stamina are gone, ritual, however empty, seems to be the last agent of momentum. Life in these stories is "going through the motions," no more, no less.

The motions here include "beautification projects" for sad towns dead in the center, women's club meetings where the women's median age is somewhere in the 80s, Thanksgiving dinner--in the family tradition where the relatives you wish would stay home show up, year after year, and the ones you love manage to be absent, either in body or soul. In "Judas at the Table," a depressed wife makes an enormous meal, while her husband peers ominously out the window, hating every minute of it, and her daughter stands her up cold. "Sure," the wife thinks resentfully of her daughter blithely skiing in the North, "sure, the whole Thanksgiving thing is silly to you. Family is silly. Parents are silly. Parents who spend themselves silly to send you to that fancy school because you failed two others."

When life is limited and essentially hateful, one's only defense is to pass that hatred on to someone else, to step on the hands of the people on the rung just below you climbing that social ladder. In "Cows, Coat hangers and the K mart Kid," the author takes a look at life in a raw new housing development--the "Friendship" of two snippy young moms, Bettye and Sally, whose only bonds are their spanking-clean toddlers, and their common loathing for the trapped house that stands between them.

Their New Neighbors

During the first part of this story, that jerry-built box is inhabited by a family with chronically ill children, a car that has a Kotex carton instead of a rear window, and a passel of sofas losing their stuffing out on the front lawn. Oh, disgusting! But when the "White-Trash" family moves out, a couple of conspicuous consumers move in. The wife wears diamond rings and a wet-bar appears as part of the permanent furniture.

What's the proper response to all that? The truth is, the author reminds us, the whole point of being in a class system is that you're obligated to hate the people "above" you quite as much as the people "below." Movement in either direction is equally odious, and when a black couple (the only blacks in this whole Southern collection) moves into that same tract house, they blow the whole social construct sky high.

Some of these stories are a little awkward, the collection is undeniably uneven, but the authorial voice is funny and strong. If you care about the South, if you cherish your creamed-onion recipe, if you still go through with family holidays not because you love them but because you should, you'll like this book a lot.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World