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 TV-saturated Sam. “The silhouetted farm equipment was standing silent and still, looking like outwitted dinosaurs caught dead in their tracks by some asteroids.” Her mother, remarried and moved to Lexington, longs to go to England, but “I don’t guess I’ll ever have the chance.” There’s lot of boredom, beer drinking, dope, and Mountain Dew, but it’s enlivened for the reader by the vivid perceptions of the intelligent, impressionable, and sometimes morbid Sam, who (on one page at random) thinks her mother’s paintings look like magnified VD germs she’d seen in a doctor’s pamphlet, thinks of pandas suffocating their babies, thinks of the dead babies in Vietnam, and of the last episode of MAS*H when “it seemed appropriate that Hawkeye should crack up at the end of the series. That way, you knew everything didn’t turn out happily. That was too easy.” Sam’s summer ends, easy or not, on a modestly affirmative and touching note, and we have few fears for the future of this likable and resourceful girl.
In Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, Sarah asks her husband Macon (an author of guidebooks for people who hate to travel) for a divorce. Since the death of their only child, murdered during a holdup at a burger stand, there has seemed little point to their life together. When Sarah leaves, the reserved and methodical Macon falls strangely apart, breaks his leg, and has to go home to live with his unmarried sister and two divorced brothers who have also come home. Brothers and sister relapse into their withdrawn, eccentric, childhood world, bound by the self-indulgent little rituals and protective patterns that have, perhaps, made their marriages fail. But when his dog, Edward, begins to bite and be unruly, Macon becomes involved with Muriel, the dog trainer, an ebullient and endearing young woman from a lower-middle-class milieu unfamiliar and rather fascinating to him. She sets her cap for him, before we know it they are living together, eventually Sarah wants to come back…the issue is what Macon, who has until now simply passed through life with things happening to him, will do, or will allow to happen to him now.
As with Mason’s book, a summary scarcely conveys the richness of descriptive detail, the apt but unaffected diction, the assurance and charm, the engaging characters, high comic tone, and wonderful ear for small-town language: “Rose laid a king on Porter’s queen, and Porter said, ‘Stinker’ “—which is probably what Amos Grundy and Sam Spangler say too. Tyler’s version of Baltimore, like Mason’s small town, suggests all of small, middle, rural America.
Everyone has remarked the popularity of such settings in recent fiction, though with some difference of opinion about what such popularity means. Is it a reaction against the artistic domination of New York, as some have suggested? Or Tobacco Road-style realism, where “sweat, usually in the background of arcadia, now glistens in the foreground,” in Ann Hulbert’s apt phrase?1 In this view, the city as the locus of adventure, despair, boredom, terror, and anomie, has exhausted its traditional metaphoric possibilities, and writers have had to move to small towns, finding there, instead of the sweetness and charm we like to remember, the tedium and despair of anywhere else.
But it’s hard to generalize because different writers are at work here, and there are matters of fashion, politics, and temperament to consider. In Country seems less a work of fearless realism than one of romantic pastoral charm in a long tradition which includes, among other books, Little Women, while recent novels like Douglas Unger’s Leaving the Land follow Steinbeck or Erskine Caldwell. After all, two views of rural life have always existed in literature as in painting, formal opposites, like Boucher and Breughel.
But what does strike one as new has to do with their method, in particular, of narrative distance. Most familiar is the sort of traditional novel as practiced by James or Bellow, in which you see through the eyes of the characters. For the past several decades we’ve also had a sort of fiction of the self, where the character is identified with the real life of the author, who seems to go on to lead the character’s life (Erica Jong, Philip Roth). Now we could say that this is fiction of the “other,” in which the authors, very detached, describe mostly what can be seen, and the clarity of visual detail strangely objectifies the characters. The process that describes the surface also makes that surface relatively impenetrable: “Her skin is flawless. Her frosted curls resemble pencil trimmings.” As when looking through the wrong end of a telescope, the detail seems fine and bright but the object seems far away and small. Because you cannot at a distance identify with the characters, you are cut off from them and feel their “otherness.”
In the traditional novel, the hero or heroine, though foolish or luckless, and however related to the actual author, was also the reader, a more articulate, differently placed, or cleverer you, whose perceptions widen your own. Mr. Sammler or Maggie Tulliver know more than you do, however much you may worry about their fates. In these new books, the “other” knows less about himself than you know about him. You experience a poignant realization that the hero or heroine is never going to find out the things that you and the author know about his or her situation, while the character just experiences a mute feeling, usually of disappointment. When she sees Dwayne’s name on the war memorial, Sam’s grandmother can only say “I’m going to bawl.” In “Shiloh,” the title story in her highly praised collection of stories, Mason’s Leroy watches his wife Norma Jean, whom he feels he is losing or has lost: “Now she turns toward Leroy and waves her arms. Is she beckoning to him? She seems to be doing an exercise for her chest muscles. The sky is unusually pale—the color of the dust ruffle Mabel made for their bed.” The silence, like the joky names, is characteristic, and the effect can seems strangely patronizing. Neither Leroy nor Norma Jean seems to connect the emptiness of their lives with the loss of their baby, or boredom, or any of the things which that brisk psychologist, the reader, supplies in explanation.
Sam, in In Country, is more nearly a traditional experiencing protagonist, but hers is the vision that flattens the other characters. We have what Sam sees. The characters in Mason’s short stories are flat too, and in Ann Beattie, and in Anne Tyler, but flat is a term that was not intended by its creator (E.M. Forster, I think) to be denigrating, simply descriptive of a method of characterization that these new works of fiction employ with success. If the characters are somehow thinner, they are also wider, like run-over cartoon cats. In Forster’s example, Mrs. Micawber is a flat character because, not wanting to focus the book on her, Dickens concentrated her qualities (foolishness, loyalty) into a tag phrase (“I never will desert Mr. Micawber”) and allowed the repetition of that phrase to do the work of presenting her. The more widely flattened characters in the books of Tyler and Mason are the sum of a number of observed qualities of dress, speech, action, observed the way a painter might see them, carefully, in full color, in a keen-eyed way (in the way of Norman Rockwell), exaggerating to the brink, but not over the brink, of caricature.
Anne Tyler’s Muriel wears “a V-necked black dress splashed with big pink flowers, its shoulders padded and its skirt too skimpy; and preposterously high-heeled sandals.” We also know that she has dark-red painted fingernails, nearly black lipstick, frizzy hair—all signifying her poor taste, lower social class, and so on. It will emerge that these sluttish costumes conceal a heart of gold. Although throughout the book Muriel’s vulgarity, brashness, and lack of “good taste” are constantly detailed, the effect is not of derision but of a celebration of eccentricity, communicated by visual signals, as on a TV screen. Any quality of satire must be in the mind of the beholder, with the author maintaining an even tone of exemplary charity, neutrality, and geniality. In these and in other works by these two writers, males in particular are seen as frail, domestic, and helpless, presented with an indulgence that borders on sympathy, while the women, creations of female authors who understand the sturdiness of women, are presented as pluckier and left to fend for themselves.
“The pictures focus not on the rich or mighty, but on everyday Americans and the pleasures of home, outdoors, and family that all of us can enjoy,” writes Ronald Reagan in his foreword to Norman Rockwell’s Patriotic Times.2 ) Art critics used to warn us not to admire Rockwell’s works. Back then we were told that however amusing we might find them, they were infected with easy sentimentality, and that while they might seem by exaggerating the length of an adolescent’s neck or detailing an old person’s wrinkles not to be flinching from the awkwardness of youth or age, they were in fact trivializing these tormenting life phases the way a funny birthday card is meant to ameliorate the fleeting of time, but in doing so conceals “reality,” which, in the fashion of the times, it was seen as our duty to confront.
Whether or not one is entitled to evade or obliged to confront unpleasant details of the human condition, and whether this choice is a matter of fashion, it is true that people have long been imprinted with a view of seriousness heavily biased toward confrontation, having at the same time a strong inner impulse to have things put in a comforting way. It may be that writers now are turning from confrontation. Certainly this new mode of combining an almost photorealistic surface with a strongly ameliorative point of view meets with warm approval, and after all, amelioration has always been one province of literature, though we usually call it myth.
The Accidental Tourist is irresistible and, in its way, gripping. On one level you are terrified that Macon will stay with his dull wife. But on a deeper level you know you are in the mode or in the hands of an author who will not permit terrible disappointment, although either resolution (Sarah or Muriel) could be “real.” The larger strategy is to urge a whole agenda of comforting, consoling ideas, among them that spunkiness and joie de vivre win over dullness; that social class doesn’t count; that affection can cure allergies; that when you are traveling in France, a likable personality will get you invited to dinner by French people; that you are likely to find real bargains in the flea market; that you can return to childhood and invite others back with you; that legs mend, mean dogs can be trained, and, above all, that the dead do not suffer. When Macon is called to identify the dead body of his murdered child, the boy looks peaceful, and he does not look like himself. The pain of bereavement passes, and like Macon you will get another little boy anyway.
All of these ideas are powerfully attractive. It’s just that they are not true. In Country, with its apparently more serious political concerns, equally proposes a reassuring resolution in which people who have suffered from Vietnam can sense if not articulate peace and reconciliation—can come to terms. The war, like the death of Macon’s child, lies in the past of the book; as in a fairy tale, in the present of either book nothing bad can happen. In The Accidental Tourist, only the discarded wife Sarah, who hasn’t succeeded in her attempts at liberation, seems to have strayed in from someone else’s novel, a realistic novel about woman’s lot, and can’t quite make it in this one—she hasn’t enough personality or oddness. (She has the only bit of bleak realism, when she confides to Macon after her return that she hasn’t slept with anyone else during the separation.) The imagery of the final pages of In Country is of love and nurture. As they touch the names on the war memorial, Sam finds her own name. “Mamaw says, ‘Coming up on this wall of a sudden and seeing how black it was, it was so awful, but then I came down in it and saw that white carnation blooming out of the crack and it gave me hope. It made me know he’s watching over us.’ ”
When Macon wakes up in the middle of the night in Muriel’s shabby house to the sound of merriment, we are shown a similar view of a benign and reassuring social order:
Who would be playing a game at this hour? And on this street—this worn, sad street where nothing went right for anyone, where the men had dead-end jobs or none at all and the women were running to fat and the children were turning out badly. But another cheer went up, and someone sang a line from a song. Macon found himself smiling. He turned toward Muriel and closed his eyes; he slept dreamlessly the rest of the night.
Our wishes are equally fulfilled by Anne Tyler’s account of a holdup:
He went grocery shopping with her unusually late one evening, and just as they were crossing a shadowed area a boy stepped forth from a doorway. “Give over all what you have in your purse,” he told Muriel. Macon was caught off guard; the boy was hardly more than a child. He froze, hugging the sack of groceries. But Muriel said, “The hell I will!” and swung her purse around by its strap and clipped the boy in the jaw. He lifted a hand to his face. “You get on home this instant or you’ll be sorry you were ever born,” Muriel told him. He slunk away, looking back at her with a puzzled expression.
These are in a sense Reaganesque dream novels, where the poor are deserving and spunkiness will win. In the real world of the newspapers people are brutalized, and killed in holdups. But perhaps it is tiresome in the reader to insist upon reality. After all we don’t require it in our president. Is Muriel’s version of life more satisfying? Or in the long run does this kind of folksy escapism fail to satisfy? The great works of the past by their form console us for the harshness of human reality that they confront. But perhaps confrontation is not the national mood, and these are books of our times.
November 7, 1985