Monday, September 19, 2011

Private Property

When I was nine years old, my mother cleaned her closet, culling her wardrobe in the process. Mama is a tiny woman and weighed barely a hundred pounds at the time. Me, well, I’m not so tiny. My father is 6 feet, 2 inches tall, a big-boned farmer with a thick, strong body. I’m somewhere in between. I’m sure they were probably still too big, especially through the chest, but I selected several of my mother’s old shirts to add to my own closet. My favorite was a navy blue cotton number with three-quarter sleeves, a Peter Pan collar, and a row of shiny blue buttons up the front.

I wore it to school soon after. I remember almost nothing at all about that day. It was neither warm nor cool, although I do remember it was sunny. It must have been after lunch because my nearly fatal embarrassment took place as we filed out the front door, across the large expanse of cement in front of the school building and down the sidewalk to the playground in back. I heard a laugh, then another, and what I can only describe as a guffaw. I realized almost immediately the laughing was directed at me. I felt air across my chest, and to my infinite horror, when I looked down I saw skin. Bare skin. My blouse was losing buttons.

We’ve all felt exposed, whether literally or figuratively, and such exposure in childhood is devastating in the moment. It’s humiliating and often lasting. Paule Constant’s novel, Private Property, describes moments such as these over and over in the life of little Tiffany Murano. From the second of her arrival at the Catholic girls’ school in southwestern France, nine-year-old Tiffany feels miserable and out of place. She misses her parents, French expatriates still living in Africa. The nuns are distant and dismissive; the other girls seem foreign and are cruel, teasing Tiffany, ignoring her, shutting her out of their conversations, their play, and their world. Having spent her life until now in Africa renders Tiffany an outsider.

Although Tiffany internalizes the rhythms and routines of the school, she never really sheds her alien status. She moves through her days detached and observant, longing for companionship but misunderstanding the social order so completely that every effort she makes disintegrates into a mortifying blunder. In one painful episode, she goes through the motions of befriending Cathy even though she is told outright she’ll be dropped like a stone the second a popular girl looks Cathy’s way. When the inevitable happens, Tiffany is more upset about her undone, unkempt hair than the departure of her false friend. Tiffany simply watches as the years pass her by. Soon she is thirteen.

Tiffany’s only solace lies with her grandparents, the reserved grandfather and her charming, devoted, but ailing grandmother. She spends her weekends with them, first at a city boarding house, then later on traveling to the Private Property of the title. The big house sits among orchards of apple, plum and hazelnut trees, looking over the picturesque village below, flanked by its own farm complete with livestock, and backed by an imposing range of mountains. Every joyful experience, every peaceful moment, and the only sense of belonging left to her are embodied in the beloved grandmother, the grandfather, and the Property.

Constant’s prose, even in translation, flows gracefully. She is at her lyrical best during the last third of the novel, moving between the school and the Property, between Tiffany’s resignation and her happiness, using only the quality and essence of her language to communicate the acute, turbulent changes. When Tiffany’s grandmother dies after a long, unspecified illness, the girl’s world is shattered. Constant renders her mourning and utter confusion in language so raw, so palpable, it makes the heart ache. Tiffany disintegrates back at school, lying awake at night, her head spinning her lesson’s facts into a kind of emotional armor. We are witness to the imminent fracture, helplessly watch her hurtling toward disgrace.

After finishing Private Property, my mind wandered over my own school years, marking embarrassments, remembering slights, rifling bittersweet memories. I relived a bit of that evening after the buttons fell from my shirt. I picked the buttons up, put them in my pocket, took them home. But with the dark shirt and buttons in hand, I went to the trash can instead of asking my mother to sew them back onto the shirt. I didn’t want to be reminded. Constant draws Tiffany in clear, stark relief, creating a character who throws shadows so large they cover you up and remind you for days.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Hell of Their Own Design

The people populating the small towns and backwoods of southern Indiana meet with grisly ends throughout Frank Bill’s short stories. Simple shootings just won’t do for these twisted, nasty characters. A blade slices through both of a man’s eyes, a man lassos and hangs his father-in-law at his wife’s behest, silent dogs bite their way from a bulging calf to a vulnerable throat, and then, there are the flames: a barn of dead dogs set afire, homemade bombs exploding and burning the attacker instead of the target, a lit cigarette flicked into a circle of gasoline. Crimes in Southern Indiana: Stories overflows with senseless violence alongside righteous, brutal vengeance.

Men, women and children wind in and out of these stories linked and rooted by place. Families take shape from one story to the next, an often gruesome shape, melding into the fabric of the action or serving as a backdrop, a connection, or an explanation of the deep mysteries of human motivation. The tone is pessimistic and sardonic. “The only time life is easy is childhood, but by the time a person realizes this, it’s too damn late.”

Bill paints his law enforcement with the same dark pigment used for his criminals. Even the good guys exhibit flaws, bad behavior, and judgment tainted by personal interest or annihilated by tragedy. Ordinary people fall victim to their vices. Innocence is shattered for no conceivable reason. Children commit violence, are raped and killed. Lives ruined in an instant. Everyone is fair game. It is the rare man who emerges on the other side and no one gets away clean.

The transgressions accumulate like crappie on a fish stringer, so fast that you lose count. In Trespassing Between Heaven and Hell, the breach lays not so heavily in the act as in the cover-up, but once events are set into motion, sin piles upon convenient sin, complicated by the relationship of brothers and the wrecked psyche of a man incapable of leaving war wounds behind him. Already broken people shatter beyond repair.

The aftermath of war figures into The Old Mechanic as well. Perhaps the most compelling story in the collection, the narrative is told from the point of view of an adolescent boy meeting his grandfather for the first time. The boy grew up hearing savage accounts of the man’s behavior. Despite his mother’s misgivings and his own searing fear, the boy goes off alone with the man. The simple words than run through the boy’s head while he accompanies his grandfather to a gun show, to dinner and finally to the old man’s home, elucidate a mixture of repulsion and curiosity, clearly illuminating the irresistible pull of blood and history. In the end, pervasive guilt wracks the grandfather’s existence with hope of only the merest hint of redemption.

The Penance of Scoot McCutcheon is a love story. It's the accounting of an ordinary home and a happy marriage, told by a doting husband. A young wife described in tender, intimate detail. But it is a love story of the dead and the dying, told in retrospect and tinged with regret. It is the least violent tale here, the crime secondary to an emotionally devastating centerpiece. Haunted by his own actions, a man in perpetual disguise runs from himself for years before surrendering to reckon for his sin, making peace with his own conscience but unable to shake his staggering guilt.

This story collection is an astonishing debut. Bill peppers his writing with generous description, some perfectly rendered, some slightly distracting. Hair and eyes “stained like a walnut”, “flesh giftwrapping bone”, or “Frail would describe her as muscular,” evoke just the right image. Even the few less successful passages bring a definite vision into the mind. Inducing and conveying raw emotion seems almost effortless for Bill, particularly in the case of men in love with their women. The stories race along, visceral, strong, and stunning, transporting the reader into a dirty, dangerous world of drugs, alcohol, incessant violence, and the terminal pastimes of decaying rural life. These people of southern Indiana inhabit an unrelenting hell made up partially of circumstance but primarily crafted from their own design.