[25 June 2008]
“Out the side window the sunset formed long red streaks above the flat Mississippi Delta horizon. She could not ignore its beauty, preacher or not. Her daddy had made sure of that before he died. Every Sunday after church, during the Harvest season, he’d take her driving down the parched dirt roads between the cotton fields he called God’s back 40. The radio of some Memphis station would be turned down low as background while her daddy pointed out the fields he worked.”—Oh Don’t You Cry For Me
In the sweltering heat of America’s South, Philip Shirley conjures up a surprisingly insightful group of characters that are at once disturbed, complex, and woefully hopeful. Set against the landscape of the rural and urban South, Oh Don’t You Cry For Me, a collection of nine short stories that average less than 20 pages apiece, delves into the lives of a handful of American southerners with stories that are alternately tragic, shocking, and undeniably charming. From Duane, a misogynistic, hot tempered man who spends his spare time placing empty beer cans into the arms of dead armadillos, to Amanda, a sultry middle-aged woman hot with revenge for her daughter’s attacker, Shirley has the uncanny ability to create powerful characters that are complicated enough to be interesting, yet simple enough to be believable.
At a time when the popularity of the short story is less than notable, Shirley has soldiered on with a pool of stories that are both striking individually and cohesive as a group. At the core of each story is the struggle of the characters to resist settling, to evaluate who they are and what they are worth, and an ever-present desire to scrape together some sort of life that they can call their own.
In “The Turkey Hunt”, which is told alternately from the perspective of brothers CJ and Jack, the two set out to hunt together, but become lost in jealous reverie. As they wander into the thickness of the woods, the bitterness of their past resurfaces, and CJ is confronted with just how far he is willing to go to achieve happiness at the expense of his older brother. “To Be Loved In Skyline” finds 20-year-old Sherrie happily complying with a nightly seduction routine orchestrated by the doctor that she works for, before bounding out to her older boyfriend Duane’s car, to help foster his reputation as the “drunk armadillo man”. Though the story is heavily misogynistic, Shirley is able to contextualize the plot and to construct the narrative so precisely that the story is neither chauvinistic nor anti-chauvinistic, but is conveyed as a poignant tale about becoming an adult, as Sherrie gains insight into her own life, with perfect nuance and without a shade of heavy handedness.
The beauty of each story is in the details, and in Shirley’s resolve not to indulge the mode of the action-packed, contrived plot. In the majority of the stories the action is secondary to the character development, yet they are nonetheless wholly engaging from the very first paragraph. In “The Consequence of Summer Heat”, the final and eeriest story of the book, thin and pretty corporate lawyer Elizabeth is greeted with tragedy and finds herself confused and distrustful as two cousins vie for her attention. Though the story appears initially to rely on the excitement of the constantly twisting plot, it is the uncertainty of human relations and the unsettling realization that it is impossible to really know anyone, that induces goose bumps by the final pages.
Shirley stumbles only when he spends too long trying to write from the female perspective. While he elicits reflections from his male characters that flow perfectly naturally, the thoughts of his females often feel wooden and not entirely authentic. Nearly giving in to the overwrought writing that he so scrupulously avoids, Shirley foreshadows a plot turn in “The Consequence of Summer Heat”, with an affected musing by Elizabeth: “She picked up two plastic glasses and the pitcher, thinking of how happy she had been for the past couple of months. Conversation just happened, without her trying to think of something to talk about.” Too simplistic for a character that we know to be complex, and seemingly too ominous in its relation to the plot, the thought is one of the few times that Shirley loses his footing.
Over the course of Oh Don’t You Cry For Me, Shirley manages to write consistently great stories that draw readers in from the outset and maintain their appeal up until the final word. Though brief, the stories are intricate enough that they feel as though they could sustain a longer work of fiction, as they lure readers into near forgotten rural towns and the charm of America’s South.