Twelve Women in a Country Called AmericaFiction
Reviewed By Jacqueline Kharouf
- Press 53 (2015)
- 232 pages
The women of Kelly Cherry’s short story collection, Twelve Women in a Country Called America, belong to the South, a place that begins and grows inside her female protagonists. Cherry builds each of these characters with long (and important) histories, condensing novelistic character complexity into a short story. And while each story follows women at different stages of life, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and degrees of moral fortitude, the collection as a whole speaks to the theme of “Southern-ness,” an identity unique in a country called America. Such an identity emerges both from nostalgia for the South’s rebellious past and pride in being from a place with so much history. In fact, the South is a kind of thirteenth woman, one that inspires, nags, or drives each of Cherry’s women to incorporate their Southern identities into better, but unknown, iterations of their lives.
Cherry is a strong storyteller and each of her stories hits the benchmarks of finely crafted fiction: dynamic characters; meaty, detailed exposition; and plenty of tension and conflict to match the reader’s emotional concern for these women. And, in general, the stories end on an up beat. I won’t say all the endings are “happy” because, in Cherry’s own words, “There is no such thing as a story that ends happily ever after, but Lorna Jo and Clyde’s story came close to that.” This line could apply to every story in the collection, even those with darker subject matter set in trailer parks, old-folks’ homes, and underpasses. All feature women (and men and children) reaching for something as close to happy as possible. The boy of a single mother learns about his grandfather’s connection to the Hitler Youth, but the mother, a woman named Plummy, cannot love her father any less. A beauty-pageant queen sacrifices something like true love for a shot at becoming a famous movie actress. A woman in the midst of an affair with a younger man spends Mother’s Day eating lunch with her husband, her adult son, and her lover. An unmarried, recently retired bank manager knowingly gives money to a con man only because she doesn’t have anyone else in her life.
That search for something close to true happiness blinds some of these women to the harshness of their realities. In my favorite story of the collection, “Au Secours,” the main character chooses death over the possibility of living without the man who has always been the object of her happiness. Au Secours is a town in Alabama where a woman named Jeanne has been living in a wheelchair following an incident with her husband. (Jeanne can only remember the sound of the gun just before her husband Lucas shot her in the spine. He had been drinking.) Lucas has recently been released from prison and Jeanne has been waiting all day for him to come home. After he enters the trailer home, they don’t talk about the incident (which Jeanne calls “The Accident”), but Lucas apologizes. While finishing a bottle of whiskey by himself, Lucas announces that he needs a divorce because he is going to be married. Jeanne, impaired by the wheelchair, questions him about this other woman, but Lucas only pushes her away and eventually passes out. A fire begins on the stove. Jeanne watches her dishtowel smolder, but before she can move it or call for help, smoke fills the trailer.
As full as the narrative arc of “Au Secours” is, Cherry actually begins the story before Lucas comes home with eight pages of deep and encompassing backstory. Jeanne is in love with the man her husband used to be and because she hasn’t seen him for five years, she also imagines him as her savior:
In the five years he’s been away, she has come to think of Lucas as her salvation, as the one reality that can justify her suffering, the long days and the pain. It was an accident. The time he’s done in prison, he’ll have learned his lesson.
Through exposition, Cherry describes how they met, how they courted, and how they got married after Jeanne finished high school. Lucas found work but couldn’t hold a job, started drinking, and then started staying out late at night. Cherry thus establishes Jeanne’s situation: Lucas has been pulling away from Jeanne for some time, but now, after an “Accident” and some time in jail, he’s coming back.
Cherry’s use of exposition is a prominent feature of each story in this collection and, indeed, her exposition carries the weight of both introducing each female character and building the context for each one’s main conflict. Cherry may vary the place in the story where she deploys her exposition, but each story, eventually, seeps below the surface to reveal the large iceberg of backstory and history supporting the present point of tension. This collection features stories that unfold like miniature novels, introducing an initial situation as opposed to an initial conflict. Cherry then brings in secondary characters and connections that make the main character well rounded and developed before giving the reader a moment of crisis, the moment when the main character realizes her situation is deceptive and fragile.
While the drive toward happiness is not a particularly Southern trait, I think the amber-hued, honey-coated charm of the South, a mix of nostalgia and pride, demonstrates how Southerners attempt to find and capture happiness. This charm is (at times) slightly grating if only because it seems to avoid a more realistic, practical, and, yes, bleaker outlook on the hardships of life. Still, the South, and the women and men who attach it firmly to their identities, belongs to the dream of America and our incessant pursuit of happiness.
Jacqueline Kharouf has an MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Matchbook Literary Magazine, Gingerbread House, the Examined Life Journal, South Dakota Review, Fiction Vortex, and NANO Fiction, among others. In 2011, she won third place in H.O.W. Journal's fiction contest, judged by Mary Gaitskill. Jacqueline blogs at jacquelinekharouf.wordpress.com, tweets at @writejacqueline, and hopes you "Like" her Facebook page "Jacqueline Kharouf, writer."