To anyone familiar with Bobbie Ann Mason's previous works (five books, which include the much-praised post-Vietnam era novel, "In Country," and most recently, "Spence + Lila"), the characters and settings found in these new stories will be recognizable. We are, again, in western Kentucky, puttering around Paducah, "the flat squirrel capital of the world," as one character says, referring to all the hapless creatures leveled on the road by Paducahns, rushing to the malls and tanning salons.
Who are these people? They are waitresses and beauticians and clerks at Wal-Mart, people who drive cars with mufflers wired to the door-handles to keep them from falling off. They shop discount stores and collect food stamps, and believe in their bumper stickers ("A woman's place is in the mall"). They listen to a lot of rock 'n' roll and mourn the loss of Elvis. The men drink too much but are sure they won't become alcoholics on beer. The women can't seem to define what they want, let alone find it. They are caught in one cliche after another: Everybody's on the make; it's hard not to get your hopes up too much; you can't live with regret; it's awful hard to look forward when there's so little to count on.The stories in "Love Life" are all about love, it is true, but they are also about the ways in which ordinary people are caught up in the pernicious consumption of popular culture, which has packaged even love in riotously vulgar imagery proposing banal formulas for happiness. Phil Donahue is their guru; when he speaks, they listen up.
They are not fools, however; they are seekers with special poignancy because they rarely get the long view that might help them understand what is happening to them. What keeps them from buying the talk-show banalities whole hog is the rural-values common sense instilled over generations and not easily forgotten, but it is an unlikely combination of impulses, things constantly at odds, like a meal of collard greens and Big Macs.
In "Hunktown," for instance, Joan is on her second marriage, to Cody, a good-looking guy who has always wanted to cut a record album. He is laid off from work and drinking too much, but he decides that now is the good time to pursue his singing career, so he heads for Memphis, where he gets a few gigs. He wants Joan to sell the family farm and move to Memphis with him, but she says no. She is suspicious of his longing to be in the spotlight. She even thinks he might be cheating on her.
"You're not Elvis," she tells him. "And selling the place is too extreme. Things can't be all one way or the other. There has to be some of both. That's what life is, when it's any good." Cliche? Yes, there is a whole kettle of them here. But the story manages to find an emotional center far removed from the banal, largely through the accumulation of beautiful detail, dead-on dialogue, and above all, the sense of a heart-felt quest for proper boundaries, which is at the center of all of Mason's writing.
Almost every story tells of divorce, confusion, longing, a sense of something missing from life. Characters often have the choice of remaining mired in unhappy relationships or trying to extricate themselves, but you don't get the sense that anyone succeeds in resolving anything.
If there is a shortcoming here it is that characters often seem too much alike. For instance, in the story "Memphis," Beverly, who is being pressured by her ex-husband Joe to get back together, could almost be the same person as Liz, a woman who is cheating on her husband in "Sorghum." I think her world is quite close to the one we actually live in, and I don't mean just the Paducahns. All around us, cliches rule and loneliness is epidemic. A memory of something lost bothers us. We seek extensions of ourselves, a community, and instead find only a conglomeration of private cells.
Raymond Carver was the first in our time to echo the hollow state of affairs with perfectly reflective, flattened prose. Bobbie Ann Mason accomplishes a similar feat. These stories work like parables, small in scale and very wise, tales wistfully told by a masterful stylist whose voice rises purely from the heart of the country.