Places in the World a Woman Could Walk
by Janet Kauffman
Knopf, 132 pp., $11.95
Leaving the Land
by Douglas Unger
Harper and Row, 277 pp., $13.95
by Padgett Powell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 183 pp., $11.95
No one now needs to be told that great changes have occurred in the economic geography of the United States, that rural life has been transformed by technology, that the old Northeast and Middle West have lost wealth, power, and population while the Sunbelt and the Far West have acquired them—along with an assortment of new miseries. Recently these shifts have been subtly dramatized in the work of writers as disparate as Walker Percy, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Raymond Carver. The strong new fiction being written in the hinterlands suggests that novelists of urban experience and sensibility can no longer assume, as they have in recent decades, that theirs is the dominant voice in our literature.
The three books under review were written by the newest of what could be called the New Regionalists. All, as it happens, are “first” works: a first collection of short stories and two first novels. Their settings are psychologically as well as geographically remote from the concerns of cities, and the prime activity in two of them is farming, in Michigan and South Dakota.
The somewhat gawky title of Janet Kauffman’s collection of short stories announces its feminist leanings (to say bias would be misleading), leanings that emphatically extend to life on the farm. The men have mostly gone off to find paying jobs or have simply gone off, leaving the women to do the heavy as well as the light work on the home place. In the funny and exhilarating story called “Patriotic,” the narrator, whose husband works in construction, relies upon a seventeen-year-old boy and a stout neighboring woman, Mrs. Bagnoli, to help her with hay baling. After swerving onto the farm in a pickup truck and narrowly missing the Ford 4000 tractor she is going to drive, Mrs. Bagnoli extends a hearty greeting to the narrator and the boy:
“It is criminal,” she says, in a festive voice, “farmers away from farms.” She shakes my hand. “Criminal, husbands working! If we go”—she shakes my wrists—”babies will have to drive.” She reaches a hand toward Floyd.
Floyd bends at the waist and brings his ankles together, politely. They shake hands.
I don’t mind acknowledging Mrs. Bagnoli’s energy. Her hair, which is thick and gray, a horsy sort of hair, is looped into a fountain effect on the top of her head. Small bobby pins catch the light and send out snappy flashes. She wears black tapered slacks and a black nylon blouse, over a body that is short-legged, thick-thighed, and enormously breasted.
The story is a celebration of hard work, good nature, and high spirits. It is also, amusingly, about breasts. The boy, Floyd, is shirtless from the start; his “two dark tits” are “flat as stickers.” The narrator’s breasts under her V-neck shirt are “smallish pegs, with nubbed blueberry nipples”; she informs us that she does not wear a bra to work on hay baling—”it would fill with leaves.” As the day heats …