From Round to Square (and back)

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Friday, September 14, 2012

The New Yorker and the World (3)—Fiction: Bobbie Ann Mason, "Shiloh"

One year ago on Round and Square (14 September 2011)—Elaine Flies Coach
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "The New Yorker and the World"
[a] Up-down RF
Over the next few months, I plan to post a little bit of the "content" from the first-year seminar I am teaching on "The New Yorker and the World." I will introduce several writers—fiction and nonfiction—and will give at least a snippet from the pages of the magazine, along with some of the context that I give while teaching the material. The next few days will feature some of the fiction writers who brought fresh perspective to The New Yorker short story in the 1970s and 1980s.

I have been writing about some of the authors who made me subscribe to—and renew—The New Yorker in the mid- to late-1970s. It all started with the terrific fiftieth anniversary issue in February 1975. From that day on, I read both fiction and nonfiction from an array of writers that made me want nothing more than to spend my life reading, thinking, exploring, and writing. The first dozen or so posts in this series will be devoted to authors who changed my life. If that seems a little self-indulgent, I urge you to bear with me. We'll get to both the earlier history of The New Yorker and today's magazine soon enough. It is not so much self-indulgence that I am embracing here as specificity. Just about everyone who reads the magazine regularly has stories about how the relationship went from just sorta likin' it to falling in love with it. These first few posts are merely my own story. By the late 1970s I had read every Donald Barthelme and Garrison Keillor story I could find; I was beginning to swoon.

[b] Almost Home RF

And then Bobbie Ann Mason walked through the door. 

Her first story, called "Offerings," was published in the February 18, 1980 issue. I just reread it the other day, and vaguely remember it. On the reread, I can see the outlines of a compassionate, fictional ethnography of lower middle-class people in Mason's native western Kentucky. The biggest difference (and I am by no means the first person to point this out) was the compassion. Back in the day, The New Yorker wrote of American life beyond Manhattan in painful fits and starts that said more about the sheltered life of the writers and editors than the rest of the country. Let's just say that treatment of rural life tended to be a bit condescending. As we have seen, that began to change with writers who shook up fictional forms, such as Donald Barthelme, and others who wrote vividly about life far beyond the city, such as Garrison Keillor. 

Bobbie Ann Mason stormed onto The New Yorker's fiction pages with her second story about Leroy and Norma Jean Moffitt; it ran in the October 20, 1980 issue. I read it three times right after I slid the magazine out of its brown paper wrapper, and I still did not have enough. It was the first time that I ever saw the potential for fiction—the short story in particular—to do accomplish something similar to what is found in the very best ethnographies. Only better. She clearly had an eye for detail that was wrapped in knowledge of and affection for her characters. I read it again...and then one more time for good measure. I was determined to be like her, and started a set of "fieldnotes" about the Norwegian Lutheran heartland of the Red River Valley. It was one of the transformative moments in my reading life, and it all began with a disabled trucker named Leroy, building Popsicle houses amidst a rebuilding a marriage and a time of change.
[c] Home again RF

Bobbie Ann Mason
Shiloh (1980)
Leroy Moffitt's wife, Norma Jean, is working on her pectorals. She lifts three-pound dumbbells to warm up, then progresses to a twenty pound barbell. 

Standing with her legs apart, she reminds Leroy of Wonder Woman. 

          "I'd give anything if I could just get these muscles to where they're 
           real hard," says Norma Jean. "Feel this arm. It's not as hard as the 
           other one."
           "That's 'cause you're right-handed," says Leroy, dodging as she swings 
             the barbell in an arc.
           "Do you think so?"

     Leroy is a truckdriver. He injured his leg in a highway accident four months ago, 
     and his physical therapy, which involves weights and a pulley, prompted Norma 
     Jean to try building herself up. Now she is attending a body-building class.
     Leroy has been collecting disability since his tractor-trailer jackknifed in 
     Missouri, badly twisting his left leg in its socket. He has a steel pin in his hip. He 
     will probably not be able to drive his rig again. It sits in the backyard, like a 
     gigantic bird that has flown home to roost. Leroy has been home in Kentucky
     for three months, and his leg is almost healed, but the accident frightened him
     and he does not want to drive any more long hauls. He is not sure what to do 
     next. In the meantime, he makes things from craft kits. He started by building
     a miniature log cabin from notched Popsicle sticks. He varnished it and placed
     it on the TV set, where it remains. It reminds him of a rustic Nativity scene. Then
     he tried string art (sailing ships on black velvet), a macramé owl kit, a snap-
     together B-17 Flying Fortress, and a lamp made out of a model truck, with a 
     light fixture screwed in the top of the cab. At first the kits were diversions, 
     something to kill time, but now he is thinking about building a full-scale log 
     house from a kit. It would be considerably cheaper than building a regular
     house, and besides, Leroy has grown to appreciate how things are put 
     together. He has begun to realize that in all the years he was on the road he
     never took time to examine anything. He was always flying past scenery.

          "They won't let you build a log cabin in any of the new subdivisions," 
           Norma Jean tells him.
          "They will if I tell them it's for you," he says, teasing her.

     Ever since they were married, he has promised Norma Jean he would build her 
     a new home one day. They have always rented, and the house they live in is 
     small and nondescript. It does not even feel like a home, Leroy realizes now.

     Norma Jean works at the Rexall drugstore, and she has acquired an amazing 
     amount of information about cosmetics. When she explains to Leroy the three 
     stages of complexion care, involving creams, toners, and moisturizers, he thinks 
     happily of other petroleum products—axle grease, diesel fuel. This is a 
     connection between him and Norma Jean. Since he has been home, he has felt 
     unusually tender about his wife and guilty over his long absences. But he can't tell 
     what she feels about him. Norma Jean has never complained about his traveling; 
     she has never made hurt remarks, like calling his truck a "widow-maker." He is
     reasonably certain she has been faithful to him, but he wishes she would celebrate 
     his homecoming more happily. Norma Jean is often startled to find Leroy at home, 
     and he thinks she seems a little disappointed about it. Perhaps he reminds her too 
     much of the early days of their marriage, before he went on the road. They had a 
     child who died as an infant, years ago. They never speak about their memories of 
     Randy, which have almost faded, but now that Leroy is home all the time, they
     sometimes feel awkward around each other, and Leroy wonders if one of them 
     should mention the child. He has the feeling that they are waking up out of a 
     dream together—that they must create a new marriage, start afresh. They are 
     lucky they are still married. Leroy has read that for most people losing a child 
     destroys the marriage—or else heard this on Donahue. He can't always 
     remember where he learns things anymore.[1]
        [Continue on The New Yorker website]
***  ***
Leroy keeps building and repairing, and the couple endures the critical gaze of Norma Jean's mother, Mabel. By the time the story ends, they find themselves picnicking on the Civil War battlefield of Shiloh. It is crisp, lonesome ethnographic fiction. I knew I wanted to read...and even write...more.
[d] Subdivision RF
Bobbie Ann Mason, “Shiloh,” The New Yorker, October 20, 1980, 50-57. 

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