style as it is for its consistent depth
of thinking (a rare pairing, to say the least). Many of the themes
that drove Shiloh and Other Stories return. The characters
are haunted by the past, long for what they've lost and--often--wonder
what's left to love or hope for in their future. Or, perhaps
even worse, they wish there had been more to love in the things
we're supposed to cherish--like fathers. In "Tobrah,"
Mason writes that when one character's father eventually "left
for good, she was glad. Her mother encouraged her to forget him."
But forgetting is never that easy for Mason's characters, is
There's a romantic notion in these stories
that childhood was a more perfect time, even if only in snatches.
Partly, it seems to be because the remembered past is less complicated
and demanding. When the main character in "Tobrah"
beats drapes and pillows with her half-sister, Mason tells us
Jackie experienced a rushing sensation
of blissful abandon, something she'd thought only a child could
feel. She remembered feeling this way once when she was small--the
meaningless happiness of jumping up and down on a bed, bouncing
off the walls, chanting, "Little Bo Peep is fast asleep."
And when a troubled Gulf war veteran in
"Thunder Snow" sees boys playing in snow, she tells
her husband that "I wanted to make snow cream with those
little boys. I wanted to do that worse than anything. You're
not supposed to make it anymore, everything's so dirty, but that
new snow looked so pure. I haven't had snow cream in forever."
Even when the adults know childhood wasn't always "apparelled
in celestial light" (as that hopeless romantic Wordsworth
so gushingly put it), they still strive for a more perfect world.
As a child newly recovered from pneumonia, "Tobrah"'s
Jackie created an imaginary town called Wellsville in which nobody
ever got sick. (It puts you more in mind of Blake's Songs of
Innocence and Experience than it does Wordsworth, doesn't it?)
The adult world--the world of the present--is
anything but celestial light in Mason's stories. There, the sun
rises behind Wal-Marts (and probably sets behind trailer parks).
And it all comes down, it seems, to how we connect to
each other--or fail to. Groups--families, married couples, children--are
not as permanent as they seem, or as permanent as Mason's characters
would like. Unfortunately, an individual's identity is drawn
from being in a group (by being a daughter, a wife, a parent),
and once that role is lost, identity itself is lost. A
character from Shiloh & Other Stories puts the idea
beautifully with metaphorical reference to quantum mechanics
and elementary particles: "If you try to separate them,
they disappear. They don't even exist except in a group.
Bob says this is one of the most important discoveries
in the history of the world."
There is, at times, at least some
sense of direction or purpose with Mason's characters. The main
character in "With Jazz," for instance, sits down in
her anti-social son's one-room cabin and is surprised by a sense
of inevitability to her seemingly haphazard life: "I felt
strange, as though all my life I had been zigzagging down a wild
trail to this particular place." That a real but unseen
purpose of possibly dubious value might lie in a person's seemingly
uncertain future doesn't seem a lot to hang your hopes on, but
for Mason's characters, it's sometimes all they've got.
Despite the characters' unhappiness (or
perhaps because of it), Mason's stories here are beautifully
kinetic. Characters wonder through snow storms and escape their
dull lives by catching a bus to a Mississippi casino 'boat.'
The movement--'zigzagging down a wild trail'--mirrors the character's
unsettled states of mind, of course, but it also makes for some
fast reading. And the comedy in Mason's stories tends to sneak
up on you delightfully too. An overheard line of dialogue in
"Rolling into Atlanta" catches you unawares and provokes
a good laugh: "'She was water-skiing and her bladder fell
out.'" And take a glance at this passage from "Tunica,"
in which a character returns home from surgery that removed sebaceous
cysts from her scalp:
Julie said, "Here, let me see that
head." She poked through Liz's short hair. "Why they
didn't shave a hair."
"They don't do that anymore,"
said Liz, wriggling away. "And they don't let you keep the
knots. They send them off to the lab so they can charge you more."
"You used to could make a bracelet
out of your gallstones," Julie said. "I was looking
forward to that if I ever got gallstones."
"You can cancel that little dream,"
Liz said. "It's probably against the law now."
Writers who are especially good with that
sort of quick, quirky dialogue read a bit like Southern Stoppards,
don't they? Or throw in a little profanity (something Mason uses
sparsely) and you can see why Elmore Leonard praises her so highly.
Mason's characters may not be the happiest
bunch, but when a new Mason book comes out, we readers have quite
a few things to cheer about. You might find your next trip to
Wal-Mart a little self-conscious, though.