Rarely do Lee Smith and Anton Chekhov appear in the same sentence of a book review, but the veteran Southern novelist unmistakably channels the Russian short-story writer and playwright in her amused affection for her characters’ foibles. Like Chekhov, Smith can lay out a world of social and personal connections in a few pages. Her new collection, mingling seven previously published short stories with seven new pieces, offers a marvelous panorama of Smith’s achievement over four decades. It’s funny, shrewd, and heartbreaking—often all three at once.
Consider this thought from Cheryl, the protagonist of “Bob, a Dog,” whose husband has just moved out: “David leaving was like him dying, was exactly like a death. The first week, for instance, everybody in the neighborhood brought food.” Like many of Smith’s women, Cheryl is a good old Southern girl who’s a lot smarter and tougher than people think. Pining for David doesn’t keep her from daytime trysts with two other men who, not incidentally, have come to the aid of her troubled son and the family’s unruly eponymous canine. When things get too rough, she opens a California Cooler and laughs at her ex, her lovers, and her complicated existence.
Cheryl is one of several female characters married to better-educated men from better-off backgrounds. Smith astutely anatomizes class and cultural divides between spouses; in both “Bob” and “Ultima Thule,” the marriages don’t survive these disparities. (The highway crash that closes the latter is, like the dog digging out of his pen in the former, an arresting metaphor for the heroine’s feelings about her situation.) But the collection’s two most moving stories show people breaking social barriers to find fulfillment—at a steep cost.
In “Intensive Care,” Harold Stikes, owner of three supermarkets, has upended his carefully planned, middle-class life for Cherry Oxendine, “a redheaded waitress…a fallen woman with a checkered past.” It wasn’t Cherry’s “dynamite figure” that threw Harold off course; it was finding the magazine quiz his wife Joan had filled out, in which she checked Box (c) in response to this question: “When you think of the love between yourself and your spouse, do you think of (a) a great passion; (b) a warm, meaningful companionship; (c) an average love; or (d) an unsatisfying habit.” Reckless, careless Cherry, who blew what little money and status she had in Greenwood, Mississippi, on two ne’er-do-well husbands and a married man who went back to his wife, offers love that is never average; she embraces “every minute of this bright, hard life.” They had only three years together, but Harold has no regrets as she lies dying of cancer. “He has been ennobled and enlarged by knowing Cherry Oxendine…he’d do it all over again.”
Liberating love is more complicated in “Stevie and Mama.” In the 1980s, Roxy had rejected her role as the dutiful wife of a rising Georgia politician to take up with a rocker named Willie. He swept her into bohemian freedom; she scrubbed away the mold in his house and bought matching sheets: “She has never been his equal. She is just a normal person who got hooked up to a genius.” Decades later, Roxy stumbles on a packet of letters revealing that Willie had had an affair 20 years earlier. Enraged and hurt, she plans to divorce him—until she recalls that the affair occurred in the aftermath of a tragedy that had left Roxy emotionally withdrawn. With subtle artistry, Smith paints the complex permutations of a longtime marriage.
She’s just as sensitive with the inner lives of children, chronicling their strivings to forge identities in a confusing world. Word-obsessed Jeffrey in “Toastmaster” and bookish Karen in “Tongues of Fire” get scant help from their self-absorbed mothers. “Mama’s two specialties were Rising to the Occasion and Rising Above It All,” comments 13-year-old Karen in one of several digs the author takes at the smooth-it-over ethos of the well-bred South. Another story notes that “Lynn herself was never much good at denial of any sort….this is why she will never truly be Southern although she has lived down her for twenty-five years now.”
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