on February 2, 2002
Unlike the stock detail of William Gay's PROVIDENCE OF NIGHT, which wears its Southerness like a Confederate flag iron-on decal, AND VENUS IS BLUE emanates The South as a region and a place where people live and things go on with or without a genuine short story writer to take it all down. The stories in Mary Hood's collection fit comfortably into the tradition of realism (Checkov, Sherwood Anderson, and Peter Taylor) and are Southern in so far as the characters yearn for red dirt, find extra cash in crash `em up derbies, and live below the Mason Dixon line.
Some writers overrun a tale with style and the resulting artificiality of language superimposes itself on the story. Other writers want to leave no trace of their presence. To describe the dichotomy between these two approaches, Charles d'Ambrosio uses the metaphor of a window screen. Some writers write with the focus on the view out of the window; the author intends the reader to see through the screen. Other writers focus on the screen and window frame and the view out the window is incidental. A writer like William Gay spends a lot of time fiddling with the screen. A great deal of pleasure in reading his writing comes from his particular use of language. And because it primarily concerns the language, the characters and situations become distorted. In a sense, the fabricated South has become as much a part of The Southern landscape as the Mississippi Delta, the boll weevil, and shotgun shacks.
To my ears, Gay sounds like a contemporary musician steeped in blues licks trying to force Delta blues out of a guitar. Gay's 1940s sedans, his cricks and hollers, his perpetual bootleggers feels more like a southern-themed collage pieced together by references to southern things. Mary Hood writes without Gay's Southern pastiche. Mary Hood keeps her fiction focused clearly on the view beyond the screen. She is a Southern writer because that's the landscape on which her window looks.
Even so, her stories deal with many of the standard Southern themes, poor whites living at the mercy of bad jobs and bad habits, characters with developmental handicaps, men sinking into old age. In AFTER MOORE, Rhonda escapes her childhood marriage to an older, slick ladies man (Moore) only to have him, years later, win her back. Moore's mellowed, grown a potbelly, and lost his hair. Rhonda supports herself and wins the occasional crash 'em up derby. In Nobody's Fool, an old man rather than admit the mistake of letting the dog out to his daughter, runs away and finds that he can't survive by himself. THE GOOD WIFE HAWKINS follows the reversal of a wife living at the mercy of her husband's brutality, to his disability and living under her thumb. In public, he is a civic leader and business owner and in private, he is petty, brutal man, punishing his wife by making her stand against the wall for hours. After raping his wife, he suffers a stroke and she takes control of his care. She exacts her revenge in neglect, feeding him at odd times, not washing him, and not taking him to the toilet.
However, Mary Hood, keeps the stories from sliding into the gothic. For instance, the final scene in "Something Good for Ginnie," occurs in the hospital between Ginnie, her father and the grandfather who's just been shot. The scene could've easily spun off into a heavy-handed intergenerational Southern Gothic revival. Instead, Mary Hood deftly deflates the heavy-handed elements and keeps the story focused on the characters.
These stories fit into literature of The South, however, in their particular detail, their evocation of small moments in the sweep of their characters lives; they reveal how a particular strand in a life can hinge on something on tangible but apparently inconsequential clutter.