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Looking for Wellsville
Bobbie Ann Mason's Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail

by Doug Childers

With Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail, Bobbie Ann Mason has produced yet another superb book of short stories that is as distinguished for its fast, often funny style as it is for its consistent depth of thinking (a rare pairing, to say the least).

Bobbie Ann Mason's first short story collection, Shiloh and Other Stories, appeared twenty years ago, and it set the tone, themes and settings for which she has been critically acclaimed ever since. It won the PEN / Hemingway award (among others) and, in sixteen fairly brief stories, it introduced her readers to a world in which her working-class characters struggled to understand their pasts and looked for suggestions--vague or otherwise--that their futures would improve. Her style was understated but lively, with quirky but sympathetic Southern characters and an instinct for Pop art-driven comic timing that would make Elmore Leonard envious (actually, Leonard is on record saying that he's "been a fan since Shiloh"). Here, for example, is how she opened "Shiloh": "Leroy Mofitt's wife, Norma Jean, is working on her pectorals. She lifts three-pound dumbbells to warm up, then progresses to a twenty-pound barbell. Standing with her legs apart, she reminds Leroy of Wonder Woman."

In the years since, she's written three novels, two short story collections, a memoir and two other works of nonfiction. Now, with Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail, she's produced yet another superb book of short stories that is as distinguished for its fast, often funny


Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail
Bobbie Ann Mason
Random House
211 pp.
$22.95 order now logo

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 it?

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 that


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. Click here to find any book!


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