[2 November 2009]
Jill McCorkle is hardly a household name, but she has made a name for herself in literary circles. The author of five novels and four short story collections, McCorkle is an accomplished writer who has won the New England Book Award, the John Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. She teaches the writing craft at North Carolina State University and has been published in literary magazines both big and small—most notably The Atlantic and The Washington Post Magazine.
In September, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill released two McCorkle titles: Going Away Shoes, a collection of 11 new short stories which marks the author’s first book in eight years, and Ferris Beach, a reprinting of a novel that is considered something of a lost classic in some circles and was originally published in 1990. That prolific nature might make the author something of a book-world Robert Pollard. (She actually burst onto the scene by publishing two novels on the exact same day, which is definitely shades of Pollard.)
So what’s to make of these two books? Well, let’s start with the newest collection first: Going Away Shoes. It is a collection that offers stories from the viewpoint of 11 female narrators, usually told in the first-person singular and usually from a middle-aged perspective, most of whom who are going through shaky marriages or have weathered the storms of divorce.
The stories, for the most part, weave together consistently and probably too consistently, as by the third or fourth story, the whole thread of a woman who has been spurned in love starts to wear a bit thin. Disappointingly, the first story in the collection, “Going Away Shoes”, from which the book takes its name, is a bit of a dud: about a woman who is tethered to a sick and dying mother who cannot seem to escape from her shackles. The story meanders through a narrative dealing with an old relationship from college with a black boyfriend for some inexplicable reason, rather than centring on the main relationship itself.
Far better is “Midnight Clear”, a story about a divorced woman who has to put up with the smell of raw sewage wafting through her home on Christmas Eve, the same night that her ex and his new flame are about to arrive for a visit. The sewage motif is a clever one, and hangs over the entire relationship with the narrator’s ex like a cloud.
Probably the collection’s best and most compelling story, “Driving To The Moon”, is a tale about a married woman who reconnects with her dying high-school sweetheart. The twist is is that the narrator only gets back in touch with her former flame during catastrophic world events, such as the Challenger space shuttle explosion and the Lockerbie plane bombing. It’s a rewarding read, and a bit of a page turner at that, this short piece of craftsmanship of how two would-be lovers only reach out to each other when one of them faces a looming personal disaster.
In Going Away Shoes, one can’t help but draw a parallel between McCorkle’s work and the stories of A. M. Homes – just without the controversy or big gross-out that Homes reaches for. Both writers have a gift for sardonic humor, both touch upon the world of pop culture – McCorkle’s story “Intervention” features a gag about boys at school showing up with Band-Aids on their faces a la rap star Nelly, though doing so also covers up their shaving mistakes – and both fritter away at the rawness of human nature, and how tenuous the links between people can sometimes be.
Which brings us to Ferris Beach, a coming-of-age story about a young girl (the novel starts when she is about nine and follows her into her teenaged years) and her new best friend from across the street who has moved from the titular place, set against the backdrop of the early ‘70s.
Ferris Beach, though set almost 40 years ago, doesn’t really revel too much in nostalgia, which is both a refreshing pro and a bit of a letdown at the same time for those who wish the book was a time machine into all of the TV shows and products like Easy-Bake Ovens readers might have grown up with. Sure, there are bell bottoms to be found, as well as shag carpets and avocado green countertops, but the main setting of the novel – presumably a fictional town called Fulton in South Carolina – is a place that hasn’t caught up with the times.
Its residents listen to Buddy Holly and early Elvis Presley, and a scene from I Love Lucy plays in the background during one of the novel’s early pivotal moments. The main character, a young girl named Kate, lives in a house built in the 1800s, and lives next door to a very old, and very full, cemetery.
The novel is a meandering one, that takes into account all of the big and small events of a girl’s adolescence. Makeovers are performed, toenails are painted, and crushes on the boy who lives behind the protagonist’s house are flirted with. McCorkle knows the pangs of growing up all too well, and conveys it more than adequately through the course of Ferris Beach. And, of course, there are the tragic events that sometimes take place in life, such as something horrible that happens at a Fourth of July celebration during the book’s opening 100 pages that seems too unbelievable and conveniently plotted to ring true. (McCorkle also doesn’t offer any sense of foreshadowing of the event, it just happens and is then explained away post-haste before being tucked away like an afterthought into the narrative.)
In Ferris Beach, McCorkle blends the somewhat comedic with the dramatic, though the comedy is somewhat dry and comes mostly in the form of a character who swoops in about a third of the way through the book to offer silly proverbs and little else. The story is, however, mostly tragic, with deaths (some unresolved), disappearances, house fires, and rape filling up the pages almost like a Viking funeral procession. The book is a real melodrama, a five hanky weeper that is heart-breaking as it is earth-shattering.
If there’s one flaw with the novel, it might be that it is all too much. How much misery can human beings really endure without lapsing into a catatonic state?
McCorkle is a fine author, though her work here is somewhat hit-and-miss. Going Away Shoes has about as many misfires as it does successes, but is worth reading for “Driving To The Moon” alone. Ferris Beach isn’t really the classic book reprinted and rediscovered that its publisher would like it to be, but it does offer a few fine vignettes into the window of teenaged life in the ‘70s, and is a fairly readable work. One is not sure if these are books worth buying, though, which leads to an inevitable conclusion: McCorkle is a well-decorated writer, but perhaps one, in the end, that public libraries were invented for.