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.”
Yet Lynn, the sharp-tongued protagonist of “House Tour,” finds herself reluctantly admiring the elderly Southern ladies who invade her home (decidedly not on the tour). “We’ve been doing things for other people our whole lives, and now it’s time for us to enjoy ourselves,” they declare, giggling. “We are releasing our inner child!” Lynn, whose inner child has been worn down by years of socializing “with other overeducated supercilious people,” resolves to buy herself a dog and some sexy high heels. She’s not so young herself, “but improvement is possible.”
After all, as the narrator of “The Happy Memories Club” informs us, “I may be old, but I’m not dead.” She’s not a proper Southern lady either, even though she taught English for 30 years in Virginia; her unvarnished memories of a poverty-stricken youth and an out-of-wedlock baby horrify more circumspect members of the Writing Group in her retirement community. The widowed title character of “Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger” likewise disconcerts people, in her case by casting off her spectator heels and stockings to shuffle around in flip-flops and describe a mystical vision to her startled family.
The book closes with “Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger”; intriguingly, it’s one of Smith’s earliest stories. The author employs no obvious organizing method in this volume; she scatters previously collected work among newer pieces in a progression that traces no clear trajectory from childhood to old age. However, an epigraph by Eudora Welty—another master of short fiction—suggests an underlying principle: “The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily—perhaps not possibly—chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.”
With this in mind, we can see that although Smith’s marvelous sense of humor never deserts her, the mood darkens and the endings become more ambiguous as the collection progresses. Hard-won optimism prevails at first; anxiety, anger, and bitter ironies then creep in; and finally life’s essential mystery overwhelms us. Smith’s wisdom and technique, already impressive when she was a young writer, have deepened over time, but her vision has never really changed: “All this pain and loving, mystery and loss,” muses the narrator of “Between the Lines.” “And it just goes on and on.”
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor of The American Scholar. In 2010 she was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.