Going to Graceland

By Ruth Moose

St Andrews University Press

In the 14th century, common English folk were stirred by the spring to forsake the grubbiness of life for pilgrimages to the liminal space of Canterbury, said Chaucer.

In the shiny, digital 21st century, lives can still be tough, but in the small-town South of Ruth Moose, it is in the sledge-hammer heat of August that their yearnings become demanding enough that people are propelled to seek strange new worlds. But to where do they pilgrimage?

Why, to Graceland, where St. Elvis of Tupelo is always turning around some corner just ahead of you. Catch him, our ordinary, current-day people might say, and he will bless you. The rapture, as Moose says, may be slow in coming, but this trip can be a day’s drive.

Chaucer had 24 tales, but in the collection, “Going to Graceland,” Moose has 47 — the population has grown, and it might take even more to fully represent the humanity she introduces us to. But these will do, an ample and funny and often astonishing read.

First, we meet Treena Boyd, a master artist of a quilter, whose husband left her to move back in with his mother next door, because some marriages, though never named, begin in childhood, and there are no laws that can divorce them. Treena has her love-light son Boyd though, born with a fragile and probably temporary heart. She quilts an Elvis quilt that is the man himself, and she only needs to find him to present the quilt to him, and get his blessing of a future for herself and Boyd. And she finds him, in the most liminal space imaginable, impersonating an Elvis impersonator! I won’t say more.

Lonely Revis Ames goes into his front yard in the middle of the night to help some strange young people who wrecked their car there. He offers frozen peas to help a bruise. He then obeys a need he did not know he had, and leaves with them to fly down a dark road to some far place. Someplace like Graceland.

The widower Chalmers Dewit finds an unknown woman naked as a mermaid, bathing in his old bathtub. She sings in luxury because the water is “hot, hot, hot!” They may go on to find a future.

Uncle Drum ran over Aunt Lillian, pretty much by accident. In their family, they don’t tell stories, they tell jokes.

An unnamed hair cutter talks to the secrets of her customers like a priest or a therapist, and knows her neighbors better than either of them ever will. She trims, and rearranges, and makes new days for people who had run out.

Marianne shops at the consignment shop and finds a remarkable series of perfect things. The Twice Nice won’t identify donors, except by number, and the same one turns up on each perfect item. Searching out this number takes Marianne looping to some strange space, perhaps her future, where Jesus seems to beckon.

Ken makes his wife Arlene leave the house late at night to see a dead fox. Over a little novella of three stories, the fox and a deer and a snake all take them to the depths of an angry neighbor’s mind, where they have to remember things they never thought they would put into words.

My favorite character is Dixie Vanilla, a retired champion lady wrestler, whose shiny Cadillac is sturdy as a tank, and she and her dog Sugar level a portion of her town with it, to make a point to her philandering boyfriend, Clifton. She wins again, even if she goes to jail.

And there are many others. There is much meanness, and revenge, and goodness, and salvation — or at least, seeking for something like salvation. Even if mean or odd, the people feel real, even if something very strange might happen to them. The meanness or oddness are not abstract and stylized and exaggerated, as in much contemporary fiction. They just seem human. Perhaps Moose just had a cup of coffee with them.

Moose is a poet as well as a fiction writer, and every word is chosen and necessary. Her dialogue carries us to living rooms and screened porches that may still exist, but those who have moved to cities can only remember, in which funny figures of speech give conversations extra sparkle, for everyone’s entertainment. A woman’s good son, every Mother’s Day, sends her a bouquet of flowers so big the truck has to back up to the door to unload. The president of the HOA insists on remaining dumber than a rock. And there are the author’s own images, as on the especially eerie midnight when the moon “rode low and flat like a home-weary horse.”

With this language, Moose takes us to small towns that may not be too far from Charlotte or Atlanta. They are not too close to an interstate, and the farms are mostly smaller than they used to be, and the mills have shut down, and the internet is slow. But the singular and often lonely hearts still seek for Gracelands.

Can we understand such folks? People like the woman who, remembering her anemones, knows she must leave her husband? Joan and Lanelle, who spy the deceitful, hiding face of racism? Lettie Broom, who burns her biscuits to spite the charming salesman? Gloria, the young woman who screams at her father, then reads comic books right after her mother’s urn is buried? Can we know these people, or love them?

Ruth Moose does. So, we can too.

Jim Carpenter makes his home in Hillsborough.

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