Stories Written With Honesty and Wit
A successful short story - indeed, a successful book of short stories - should offer the reader elements of setting, plot, character and theme that are familiar while slyly coaxing him or her into unfamiliar and intriguing territory.
That's exactly what Anne Clinard Barnhill accomplishes in her first collection of short stories, "What You Long For" (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 186 pages, $14.95).
Elements of the 16 stories collected here are likely to strike the reader as initially recognizable.
The stories are surely Southern enough, and the characters are ordinary people caught in seemingly ordinary circumstances. And the prevailing theme, the relationship of the past to the present, is grist for many Southern writers.
But it's where Barnhill takes us, sometimes crying, sometimes laughing, that lifts these stories above the ordinary.
In "Washing Helen's Hair," an elderly couple completes a ritualistic, mildly erotic shampoo while drifting through mood and memory into the early formative moments of their relationship. "...[he] just pats her shoulder and leads her to the overstuffed chair on the back porch where he will towel-dry her hair, the drying faster there in the sun.... He lifts her feet, one at a time, onto the hammock, rubs them for a moment until they are buzzing with warmth. Then he begins to comb her damp hair, carefully, so as not to pull a single strand."
In the wonderfully delicate and lyrically written "Some Nameless Thing," a mother whose children are grown receives a late-evening phone call from her youngest child, Allen, whose life is at loose ends. With her husband asleep beside her, she reluctantly senses that she is no longer fearful for Allen's well-being. "That she could sleep, registered somewhere on her heart. She thought it might mean something, but before she could consider what, she was lost to the pull of the night, the strange peace that came from being at the end of a thing."
"The Perfect Pair" is the hilariously topical story of Sara Jane Clodfelter (you've got to love the surname), who is considering a breast reduction operation and is looking at other women's breasts in order to find a model for her reconstruction.
At a mall in Winston-Salem, Sara Jane approaches a teenage girl and asks if she would consent to having a photo taken of her breasts. The teenager reports Sara Jane and the narrator to the mall security guard (Tim Goiter is what Sara Jane mistakenly calls him) and claims that the older women propositioned her and wanted to take photographs of her in the nude.
Eventually, Sara Jane decides the narrator's breasts should be the model for her surgery, and she persuades her friend, in the privacy of her home, of course, to bare her bosom.
"Before I knew what was happening, Sara Jane reached out and touched my breast, the gentlest touch I'd ever felt, like a butterfly landing on your finger. The contact lasted less than a few seconds, then Sara Jane wrinkled her nose, grinned and scrunched her shoulders as she removed her hand. Though the moment was brief, it seemed to stretch between us soft as taffy."
Barnhill's strength is a consistent honesty edged with an incisive wit - and her first collection of short fiction contains powerfully imagined stories that are rich in their detail and generous in their rewards.
Barnhill is also the author of a memoir, "At Home in the Land of Oz: Autism, My Sister and Me." Her stories have won several awards, including the Porter Fleming Fiction Award. She publishes nonfiction with a variety of newspapers and magazines and also teaches writing and creative writing workshops.
Contact Stephen Smith at email@example.com.
More like this story