Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Out of Its Misery

I've been reading Shiloh & Other Stories, by Bobbie Ann Mason, originally published in 1982 and winner of that year's PEN/Hemingway Award. Mason, a Kentuckian, has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and especially for the dialect of her homeland. I can hear these people talking--and I know they're authentic, because I grew up hearing this speech--and Mason achieves it through careful diction and phrasing. Rarely will you find a dropped "g," and never a phonetic spelling. This is the way to write regional dialogue.

These stories are about family, and many, but not all, are about troubled marriages. The events of these stories are simultaneously momentous and subdued, as in "The Climber," the story of a woman who has discovered a lump in her breast. On the day the story takes place, the woman has an appointment to see a doctor about the lump. Some men have come to cut down an eighty-foot tree next to her house. She watches the elaborate process of the tree's removal, and eventually goes to the doctor, who informs her that the lump is merely fibrocystic disease, and nothing to worry about.
As she drives home, Dolores feels confused, surprised that her sense of relief feels so peculiar. There is nothing momentous in what she has been through. Nothing important has happened that morning. A tree has been cut down; her daughter has cut out a weskit; the doctor has made a routine examination; Dolores has forgotten to make lunch.
But of course, something momentous has occurred. In a sense, her life has been spared.

Throughout the collection, Mason presents ordinary people dealing with ordinary heartache and getting on with the business of living, the way people do, without making a big fuss. Reading these stories, I feel almost as if I'm crouching in the bushes outside someone's home, eavesdropping. Yet, it would be a mistake to label these tales "slice of life" stories. Things happen. Characters wrestle with decisions and take actions, sometimes small, but always revealing.

In "The Retreat," Georgeann is married to Shelby, a preacher who works as an electrician during the week to make ends meet. Georgeann has grown weary of Shelby and his devotion to the church; the highlight of his year is a weekend religious retreat, but Georgann's preparations for the retreat are reluctant. One Sunday, instead of going to hear Shelby preach at a funeral, she cleans out the hen house. One of the chickens is sick, unable to stand. She brings it food and water, although she thinks, "There is nothing to do for a sick chicken, except to let it die."

Georgeann goes to the retreat, but spends most of the time (and most of their spare money) playing video games. When they return home, they learn that Shelby has been assigned to another church, sixty miles away, meaning that they will have to move. Georgeann tells him that she isn't going with him.
"We're going to have to pray over this," he says quietly.

"Later," says Georgeann. "I have to go pick up the kids."

Before leaving, she goes to check on the chickens. A neighbor has been feeding them. The sick chicken is still alive, but it doesn't move from a corner under the roost. Its eyelids are half shut, and its comb is dark and crusty. The henhouse still smells of roost paint. Georgeann gathers eggs and takes them to the kitchen. Then, without stopping to reflect, she gets the ax from the shed and returns to the henhouse. She picks up the sick chicken and takes it outside to the stump and examines its feathers. She doesn't see any mites on it now. Taking the hen by the feet, she lays it on its side, its head pointing away from her. She holds its body down, pressing its wings. The chicken doesn't struggle. When the ax crashes down blindly on its neck, Georgeann feels nothing, only that she has done her duty.
Yes, you guessed it, an example of the Dead Animal Trope, but a fine one. When a chicken's that sick, it must be put out of its misery, just like a sick marriage. For another example of an animal acting as a stand-in for a doomed marriage, see "Rear View," by Antonya Nelson (mentioned briefly in a previous post: "Extra Credit for Marmots").