What is past is prologue.
Close your eyes, just settle, settle.
—Taking Back Sunday, “A Decade Under the Influence”
Take a small North Carolina town, add a handful of interconnected families, give them four decades, and what do you have? A dozen characters in search of escape from the dubious legacies of their Southern Gothic past.
In Moira Crone’s poignant and troubling short story collection What Gets Into Us, we drop in and out of the lives of the Cobb, McKenzie, Stark, and Sender families and their black maids, Pauline and Sidney, from 1959 to 2000. For the most part, our visits with these characters are as edgy as Christmas holidays in a dysfunctional family where everybody knows what’s wrong but pretends not to. No matter what happens, Fayton’s bourgeois manages to turn a blind eye to it and keep their self-image untarnished.
Ten-year-old Claire McKenzie’s mother is insane and imperious, a combination that spells disaster for the family, something no one else seems to notice. Down the block, Claire’s buddy Lily Stark has a new best friend—Mr. Sender, a prominent man in town who happens to be a pedophile. Lily’s parents are preoccupied and oblivious to their daughter, so the family maid, Pauline, takes matters into her own hands and seizes an opportunity to permanently end Mr. Sender’s sexual predation. The Cobbs, disgruntled with their unsatisfactory son, adopt an orphaned teenage boy and emotionally cannibalize him. In a classic case of self-fulfilling prophecy, the rejected son becomes a drug addict and a drifter. Like a person who’s fallen into quicksand and disappeared without a trace, he vanishes from the family circle as if he’d never existed at all.
That’s just a sampling of what happens—and these are the people on the right side of the tracks.
Crone captures the ambience of the Jim Crow South of the 1950s and ‘60s as well as the contemporary New South with uncanny accuracy and an eye for the telling little details that lend the book a satisfying authenticity. As a Southerner, she knows well the flavors of the region and the people she writes about. The characters are true to type without being stereotypic and are called colorful things like Bit and Sweetie and Nyla and Tulip (he’s a man, by the way, and there’s a perfectly logical reason for his odd moniker.) Though the author has slightly changed the names, anybody familiar with the area will easily recognize the Eastern North Carolina locales, but readers who aren’t will soon feel like they’ve lived there forever anyway.
Though all the stories in the collection are solidly written, some are more compelling than others and certain voices stand out as unforgettable. The most successful and striking pieces are told from the perspective of the children of Fayton’s well-to-do families and the pre-civil rights era black housekeepers who care for them.
In “The Ice Garden,” which won the Faulkner/Wisdom Prize, Claire McKenzie watches her mother descend irretrievably into madness and makes a horrifying choice that plunges her own self into an emotional winter that has no end. In the mystical and haunting “White Sky in May,” Lily Stark witnesses the disintegration of the McKenzie family. Though she doesn’t quite understand what’s going on, she sees signs in the sky and knows that it bodes nothing good for anyone. In “Mr. Sender,” the Starks’ diffident and downtrodden black housekeeper Pauline is empowered, through an act of horrific violence, to take charge of her life for the first time.
Arguably the finest story in the collection, “Pipe Smoke” jumps ahead in time, from 1963 to 1986, when the McKenzies’ former housekeeper, Sidney Byrd, encounters Lily Stark at Pauline’s funeral. Moving away from Fayton has ostensibly given Lily a chance to leave her unhappy childhood memories behind. She is now 30-something and has made a new life for herself in Washington, D.C. In the post-civil rights era, Sidney seems to have improved her situation as well. No longer the overworked, under-appreciated servant providing wraparound care for demanding white families, she has a straightforward job in a shoe factory where she’s grateful that “her bosses from New Jersey… just ask for your eight hours.”
However, as the narrative progresses, it becomes apparent that time has changed nothing for either of these women. The past has a stranglehold on Lily that estranges her from herself, as she struggles to reconcile her recollections with her mother’s whitewashed version of events. As she recalls her molestation by Mr. Sender, she says to Sidney, “Nothing seems real. What else happened?... I don’t really know. It seems as if my whole life happened to somebody else. Or didn’t really happen at all.”
Sidney prides herself on an emotional detachment that makes her invulnerable to the things that bedevil others. However, in the Fayton movie theater, the past catches up with her with a vengeance. Years after desegregation supposedly equalized the playing field for all, she still feels uncomfortable sitting in a front row mezzanine seat instead of the balcony, where blacks traditionally sat in the pre-Civil Rights Act days. She can’t even enjoy the movie—the actress’ poufy crinoline dress reminds her of the party frocks she used to wash and starch for the daughters in the families where she worked long ago. As she watches the pretty Caucasian leading lady walk by a river, she has a horrible vision:
I got the idea the actress was going to fall into the water. The other people on the screen didn’t know it, but they were all going into the river, too. And the people in the audience… black and white, were about to go in as well. I could feel them all tumbling forward, going down, and wasn’t anybody, once they fell in, ever, ever going to touch the bottom. There was no bottom, that was the thing.
There is no better description of the state of Crone’s characters than that. Their lives are a bungee jump with no cords, a freefall without a parachute. The only thing attached to them as they descend ever deeper into their private hells are the ties to family and community that bind them to the misery of the past, no matter where they flee to escape it.
What Gets Into Us is a complex and remarkable book that deserves to be read slowly and re-read meditatively. Like the works of Flannery O’Connor, this collection transcends the genre of “Southern Literature” and probes deeply into the paradoxes of the psyche and the zeitgeist of modern America. Despite our prosperity, advantages, education and seemingly boundless opportunities for personal success and fulfillment, we remain a peculiarly unhappy people who spend $538,000,000 a year on self-help books to fix what’s broken inside of us. The reality is, as the classic song by the Eagles astutely observes, “We are all prisoners… of our own device.” That certainly holds true for the characters in What Gets Into Us, trapped in an emotional solitary confinement, isolated, alienated, blind to the truths that would set them free and unable to help themselves or others except by rash, irrational and sometimes violent acts of desperation.
Crone has the lyric touch of a poet and the visionary spirit of a mystic, conjuring images that are both disturbing and startlingly beautiful. The reader will never forget Claire McKenzie’s last memory of her mother or Sidney Byrd’s symbolic dream about her dead friend Pauline or Lily Stark’s stunning vision that closes this collection. Though Crone provides no easy way out for the tormented individuals of Fayton, North Carolina, there is redemption in this book. Like her characters, the reader just has to have faith in the midst of darkness and look for it.
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