Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction
New York Times Editors’ Choice
University of Massachusetts Press
Cover artwork by Celeste Nelmes.
Deceptively simple stories about earthy country girls
In "Stigmata," the last piece in Nona Caspers' heady "Heavier Than Air," 11-year-old Theresa finds herself caught in a predicament common to Caspers' story collection. One of a series of more or less interchangeable narrators (sometimes called Deborah, or Linnie or Ruthie), she's rangy, avid, "marked early on -- the girl who was caught with Pall Malls in her purse in the third grade ... kissed boys, and sometimes girls, behind the church in the fifth grade. ... I studied and ate lunch alone, sat on the swings alone."
Now she's obsessed with her spookily religious neighbor Linda. They roam the hills together, Theresa stuffing her feet into gym shoes that make them bleed. It's painful and oddly purifying: "I felt proud of myself, and determined. I also felt lonelier than before, not a sad lonely but a clean lonely ache." Maybe it's sexual, maybe it's spiritual, maybe both can be the same thing, but who knows these things this early?
Theresa's unmarried sister Shelley is suddenly the town tramp, packed off somewhere to deliver her child in peace. She illustrates an alternative route into adulthood, one that's scarily uncontrolled and ungrounded, perhaps too free for country girls comforted by small worlds and nearby horizons. (In another story, the narrator "didn't know if she had the guts to go to a demonstration or a love-in.") At this story's conclusion, Linda leads Theresa into her bathroom, strips naked, and shows off a hideous set of self-inflicted scratches, including her own name carved into a forearm. Posed beneath a picture of Jesus, she tries to bring forth her own gush of holy blood (one obliging drop trickles), then escorts her visitor to the door. On the way home, Theresa sits down in a field near her house to ponder what she's just seen, then notices Shelley sticking her head out the window and smoking. "Shelley leaned far out the window," the story, and collection, conclude, "until it looked like she was balancing only on her hips, and I shut my eyes and prayed."
What's Theresa praying for? That God deliver Shelley from her misery, or Theresa from her fate? That she find a way to submerge herself in small-town traditions and religious certainties, good and bad, mad and sane? That she discover some way, any way, out, even if it means building on her early achievements and succeeding her sister as town tramp? That she can somehow do both at once?
In the best stories, that finely balanced and unresolved tang of desires can intoxicate. Caspers lets a real affection for rustic ways and people play against the age-old story of escape, and she resolutely refuses to stack the deck: Though her characters burn to move on, she's unstinting about the decency and clearheadedness of farm women who from childhood are "shy but eerily self-possessed; she gave the feeling of grass or wheat or stone." Even forced to trail around San Francisco after their depressed, ungrateful and over-educated daughters, these hopelessly Midwestern women retain their homespun generosity and courtesy. "You do what you have to do, Deborah," one of them says. "Everybody knows that."
Revving up Willa Cather's naturalism and lesbian undertones with Denis Johnson's deadpan Plains rowdiness, these are like alt-country songs, tales of wild but not wild-eyed girls and women as likely to be enraptured by the girl next door as by the lay of the land. The prose is exact, unsparing, unsentimental, whether it's cataloging the ravages of locusts ("the fields for miles were bare, the most amazing nothingness he'd ever seen") or following a car crash almost disinterestedly: "Tommy hit the brakes, and, as the rear end of the Nova swung across the road into the ditch, Marie grabbed the car seat with both hands, sat upright, and screamed 'Wheeeee!' Matt put his head in his hands, Chrissy's forehead hit the window with a thud."
That very plainness makes the weaker stories seem over-tilled, insistently metaphorical. In "Wide Like an Eagle's Wings," the cultural implications of the Kennedy-Nixon election get plowed into the ground. "Everything depended on each person as a member of the nation ... everything depended on seeing beyond the particulars to the horizon." In "Alfalfa," we learn that alfalfa demands quick cutting, just before its beauty arrives: "If the flowers bloom and go to seed the stems won't make good hay." So as the protagonist stumbles toward a wedding she's hardly sure she wants, here comes a sun-dried field for her to behold and for us to liken her self-starving to, where "crops will straggle up dazed and yellow. ... She hopes they'll make good hay."
But the greater moments here much outweigh the lesser ones. Caspers' pungent voice, her fairness to city and country mores, and the artful arrangement of her tales reward rereading. Simplicity this precise takes time, talent and considerable cultivation.
Jesse Berrett is a San Francisco writer and teaches history at University High School.
This article appeared on page E - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicl