by Bobbie Ann Mason
Harper and Row, 245 pp., $15.95
The Accidental Tourist
by Anne Tyler
Knopf, 355 pp., $16.95
Sam pulls in at the Sunoco and springs out of the car to let Mamaw out. Mamaw has barrel hips and rolls of fat around her waist. She is so fat she has to sleep in a special brassiere. She shakes out her legs and stretches her arms. She is wearing peach-colored knit pants and a flowered blouse, with white socks and blue tennis shoes.
The man at the next table was also on his own. He was eating a nice pork pie, and when the waitress offered him dessert he said, “Oh, now, let me see, maybe I will try some of that,” in the slow, pleased, coax-me drawl of someone whose womenfolks have all his life encouraged him to put a little meat on his bones.
Amos Grundy and Sam Spangler sit over a checkerboard. Amos Grundy wears a purple shirt, vest, sleeve garters and slippers. His thin gray hair is bowl-cut. His neck is wrinkly, hands gnarled. Sam’s face and ears are red. His gum boots sit by his chair. There’s a dog, a hooked rug, caned chairs. The two men have been playing checkers for over thirty years and keep a running tally.
The first two passages are from Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country and Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist respectively, and the last is my description of a picture by Norman Rockwell, with the men’s names taken from the caption. The similarity of the two excerpts from books to each other and to other recent writing, and, in subject and technique, to pictures by Rockwell (as this writer sees them), makes one notice the techniques that are common to these works of the new fiction with their fashionable settings in rural or small-town America among lower-middle-class people—what Jonathan Yardley has called “hick chic.” These novels share a meticulous, literal description, the faintest hint of caricature, and a long narrative distance in which the author is very detached, a viewer rather than an interpreter.
In Country is a charming account of a young Kentucky small-town girl, Samantha (“Sam”), during the summer after she graduates from high school, a classic time for such stories of maturing and questioning. Sam lives with her uncle, Emmett, a Vietnam veteran, never himself since the war. Her father Dwayne was killed in Vietnam, and the war has affected the lives of almost everyone Sam knows—fears of Agent Orange, damaged personalities, impotence, and dislocation. Sam has doubts and curiosities about the war, her father’s death, what these experiences meant. She camps out in a nature preserve to find out what it was like in the jungle; and in the end travels with her grandmother and Emmett to Washington, DC, where they mean to look at the Vietnam War Memorial. There she, Mamaw, and Emmett in their separate ways come to some conclusions.
Along the way there is rich detail of small-town life and country landscape, which like everything else furnishes the imagination of the …