Frank Manley, a professor of English at Emory University and the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships, creates a remarkable world in this fine collection of short stories. All of his characters share a common denominator: They inhabit and are inhibited by worlds from which they try desperately to flee.
Manley takes us into small spaces, indwelling and claustrophobic, where events spin out of control in a matter of seconds. In "Within the Ribbons," the title story, Daisy Feed, who had spent her life caring for her recently deceased mother, confesses to her friend that she has never been to a wedding. Her friend, Amelia Thorlew, a study of easy alarm and good intentions, replies, "I go to a wedding once a year. Sometimes twice. And sometimes it just comes in bunches. I don't even get back home and take my bicarbonate of soda sometimes when here comes another and I got to get sick all over again."
So Daisy accompanies Amelia to the next wedding and Manley, in detailing the surreal aspects of the event, draws us into Daisy's inner core.
She gets to sit within the ribbons--the church pews reserved for family members--but spiritually and physically, she remains on the periphery, longing to connect. Yet when the bride tosses the bouquet, she steps back. " 'Why didn't you get it?' Amelia asked, trying to kick it with her foot. The bridesmaids were still screaming and scrabbling. 'You could have got it. She aimed it at you.'
" 'I didn't want it,' Daisy Feed said. 'I wouldn't know what to do with it.' "
The wedding is a rich, vulgar and graceless affair that Manley describes in trenchant language: " 'Wait a minute.' The young men rushed up. 'Look here,' one of them said. He held out a plate of shrimp.' "
"How do you eat it?"
"With a fork."
"There aren't any."
"Daisy Feed looked at the plate, then at the table. There was nothing to eat the shrimp with. 'I don't know,' Daisy Feed said.
" 'That's what I mean,' the young man said.' 'They got it fixed where you can't eat it.'
" 'Hey, try a toothpick,' one said.
" 'Look how I do,' the other one said, and he opened one of the sandwiches and with a piece of bread dug at the pile of shrimp on his plate as though he was mopping it up with a towel. Then he thrust it in his mouth. Most of it got in. The rest rolled down the front of his suit onto the floor. 'Goddamn,' one said. 'Son of a bitch,' said the other. They both stopped to clean it up, and Daisy Feed left."
Amid this confusion, Daisy glimpses an ephemeral figure, more shadow than man, who slips in and out of her line of vision. At first, she imagines he is a thief, then she realizes that she alone sees him and she alone knows that his presence portends fulfillment and disaster of horrifying proportions.
In "A Joy Forever," the characters are finely drawn against a background richly detailed to illuminate the dynamics of small town corruption and the casual cruelty hidden behind a curtain of soft Southern gentility.
Mattie Chadwick, a spinster buoyed by a new interpretation of Scripture, is moved to fight the powers who have closed a rural road, a road to the past that must remain open. "That road goes back to the beginning of time . . . I go down there, and the rocks are the same, and the trees are the same, and the river, it's still the same and it's like I step back. It's important to me. I can't live just here. Living here without that road opens like plants living without their roots. They shrivel up and die in a day."
Manley pulls us along, almost submerging us in a subterranean current of sexuality as Mattie tries to enlist the help of her neighbors--the pistol-packing Widow Grizzle and her three daughters. Her quixotic crusade is nearly sidetracked by the women's intense preoccupation with the thought and threat of rape; their obsessive attempts to define and describe, within the limits of their experience, aggravated sodomy.
Mattie then describes her encounter with the commissioner of roads: "It's like he was violating me. One time they robbed me when I wasn't there. My momma and daddy just died the year before, and I was out down at the river. It was still light, and I got back just before supper, and the door was standing open. It was the fall, and it was cold. When I saw it open, I knew something was wrong, and I crept up and looked in the windows. It's like somebody lifted my skirt. 'Oh, God,' Althie said. She clutched her hands.
Mattie continues: " . . . and it was like they did something to me--lifted my skirt and did what they do, and I couldn't stop them. That's how I feel about that road--if I let them, that's what they'd do."
Mattie lets the commissioner know that she intends to fight. To the threat implicit in his response, she replies, "That's why I'm doing it, Benny. I don't care if I die, anyway. I figure I'm a joy forever."
There are several battles being waged on different fronts. For Mrs. Grizzle, the road is a path to the past that should remain closed. "All that talk about opening the road and going back there where you were a child and all that talk about old lives. That got her (one of her daughters) stirred up and thinking about things she wished she hadn't. Let sleeping dogs lie. Better just forget about some things. We do what we can. That's all we know how to. And sometimes our children forgive us, and sometimes they don't."
But the conversation rolls out of control, assuming a power of its own, plumbing the well of memory until finally the image of Reverend Grizzle, reeking of incest cloaked in religious ritual, is brought to life, forcing an act of personal absolution that is at once pathetic and bizarre.
The urge to escape spirals to comic dimensions in "The Call of Nature." Dortis Mulkey, a young thief who specializes in stealing anything on wheels (go-carts, dune buggies, tractors, bulldozers, etc.) swipes a car parked in a shopping center. He takes off. No particular destination.
In his haste, he neglects to check the back seat and like most thieves who get tripped up by minor details, he finds that he has taken a dotty and feisty old woman along for the ride. The dialogue here is wonderful and vivid. Dortis discovers that the woman, Lucille Arp, wants to get away also. She wants to get back to Unadilla, Ga. Back to where she once knew what it was to be happy and also to fulfill her life-long ambition to become a reader/adviser. She envisions Dortis as a gift sent from heaven and insists that he drive her. Dortis, recovering from the shock, "was listening to the tires. The tires were saying, 'Unadilla-kiss-my--Unadilla-kiss-my--.' "
He develops a plan: Take the car to the nearest car wash and there, abandon the old lady. "Dortis Mulkey started to slow down. 'Why are we stopping?'
" 'This's the car wash.' Dortis Mulkey said. It was at the rear of a filling station, a long tunnel with red and white brushes. 'Time to get out,' Dortis Mulkey said, executing the plan perfectly. He reached back and freed the door. 'I ain't leaving,' Lucille Arp said, pushing back in the imitation velvet upholstery. It was gray. It reminded her of the sides of a coffin she had seen in the funeral home at Unadilla . . . no telling what was underneath it. 'I'll wait here till you get done. . . . Thank God you came. You're going to drive me to Unadilla.'
" 'As soon as you get out of the car so we can get it washed, I am.' Dortis Mulkey got out of the car and opened the back door. Lucille Arp screamed as though cleaved in the middle. Dortis Mulkey leaped back in and drove through the car wash, triggering the wash mechanism. It was still churning and squirting behind them as they broke into the sunlight and fishtailed around the side of the service station onto the highway. 'That's better,' Lucille Arp said. 'What you say your name was?' The question evokes painful memories for Dortis: of abandonment and ridicule which he had tried all his young life to outrun.
" 'Pull over here.' She pointed with an arm that looked like a stick with a dead bird nailed to the end of it. 'What for?' 'The call of nature.' Oh God, Dortis Mulkey thought. He imagined Lucille Arp stepping out of the car and calling and nature responding--stars sweeping out of the sky as in the Book of Revelations, figuring forth the promised upheavals and cataclysms of the last days."
Lucille tries to convince Dortis that she has the gift, describing how she had helped the high school girls' basketball team win the state championship two years in a row by rounding up every cross-eyed girl in town and convincing the coach to train them. "Natural-born basketball players. Look here and shoot there. Couldn't figure out which way they were going. That's how signs are. Look one way and go the other. Took me to tell them or else they'd still be a bunch of ugly girls instead of a state championship team bringing back glory."
Dortis Mulkey is by turns, fascinated and repelled. He reveals his dream of becoming a professional stock car racer, then his heart hardens again and he succeeds in abandoning Lucille at the entrance of a Pizza Heaven. But only temporarily. When he returns to fetch her, his encounter with the leathery waitress triggers some of the funniest dialogue in the collection.
Conversation with Lucille Arp widens Dortis Mulkey's sense of the possible. He envisions something vast, a life beyond Unadilla, beyond Macon, miles from the mother who walked out because she was too tired to care for him. Lucille and Dortis are now convinced that a new beginning awaits them in Florida. "Disney World where you can park your car at one of the dwarfs--Sleepy or Sneezy" but the more they struggle, the tighter the net becomes.
The tone of these stories vary from surreal to sad to sensual to sometimes wildly funny and the characters are, by turns, murderous, lecherous, righteous, and sometimes childishly simple. The thread drawn through all of this is the crying need to escape.
Manley, in addition to the Guggenheim fellowships, has won several awards for poetry and deservedly so. He has a fine eye for detail and a sharp ear for dialogue. He has created people trapped in the skin of old lives; mired in the indescribable misery of failed marriages, and we watch as they seek deliverance by unlikely routes. They engage in bruising battles with unpeaceful memories that gnaw at the core of the self. They cannot outmaneuver them, yet they cannot quite come to terms so they keep trying in ways that make these stories, rich in the nuance of Southern experience, memorable indeed.