Reviews

Author Lee Smith's Memoir Is a Balance of Sweetness and Heartbreak

Dimestore should take its place alongside Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings and King’s On Writing as a beautiful and haunting memoir about the American journey.


Dimestore: A Writer's Life

Publisher: Algonquin
Language: English
Author: Lee Smith
Hardcover: 224 pages
ISBN-10: 1616205024
ISBN-13: 978-1616205027
Publication date: 2016-03
Amazon

The most basic line running through Lee Smith’s shimmering, consistently beautiful memoir, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, is the inclination to be in transit. No matter where we are, we yearn to be somewhere else. For Smith, born in 1944 and raised deep in the mountains of Grundy, Virginia, there were no shackles keeping her obliged to and restrained within the confines of Hill Country. On the other hand, she understands (as the title to her preface indicates) that she was “raised to leave”.

It’s a theme abundant in the lives and plots of fellow Appalachian authors, musicians, and artists. Does leaving mark the ultimate betrayal of the land and its people? If the hills protect, does the outside world corrupt? Through 14 nostalgic chapters covering various elements of her life and times as a woman from Grundy, absorbing everything from the tumult that came from coming of age in the '60s, developing as a writer, and watching the innocence of her hometown (including the eventual appearance of a WalMart replacing her late father’s old dimestore), this is a book that earns a balance of sweetness and heartbreak on every page.

For many readers, especially in these extreme times of Red State fear and Blue state loathing, where all that space between New York and Los Angeles is summarily dismissed as flyover country, the prospect of sitting down to a story about a life that started and remains still influenced by the environment of Grundy is daunting. Smith seems to understand that, which is probably why the preface to this collection of essays (most of which were previously published in various journals and date back to 1998) focuses on an early 21st century O Brother, Where Art Thou? Concert in Carnegie Hall. There, singing his chilling a capella song “O Death”, was the then 76-year-old Dr. Ralph Stanley.

His appearance, and the surprising popularity of the soundtrack, led Smith to these reflections: “Now, everybody in the region realizes that we don’t have to go anyplace else to ‘get culture.’… America as a whole is coming to appreciate and value its differences… our own Appalachian culture is as rich and as diverse in terms of history…

as any area in the country.”

Smith may not have been able to forecast the current state of mainstream American xenophobia rooted in building walls and developing alien registry lists, but the point she made approximately 15 years ago remains valid. By the beginning of the 21st Century, such revered acts as Dolly Parton were returning to traditional bluegrass recordings. Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle were establishing credibility through years of consistent authenticity. Writers like Barbara Kingsolver, and films like Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain (2003, based on the book of the same name by Charles Frazier) were marketable. Smith argues that “…mainstream American culture has become ‘Appalachian-ized.’” Even NASCAR, arguably the most successful export from the culture, was pervasive.

It’s this question of whether acceptance and understanding from the mainstream culture results in impurity that runs through this book. In effect, cultural appropriation of the simple life, in whatever form that might take, dilutes the lessons learned about family, country, and responsibility. There’s also the issue of feeling smothered, feeling trapped. Take this line from the title essay: “Driving into Grundy was like heading into a bowl, producing that familiar sense of enclosure that used to comfort me and drive me wild at the same time when I was a teenager.”

The most remarkable accomplishment of this title essay is that Smith proves more than capable of containing the full spectrum of Grundy’s lifetime within the span of 33 pages: the movies she’s seen that taught her about the power of the human voice as narrative' the neighbors and the way they cover their real feelings in the words they choose; the lonesome song of a train’s whistle and; her father’s dimestore, which was always the center of activity. The dimestore closed in 1992. By 2012, coming to town to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a local library, Smith reflects on Grundy, which by that point had become a college town: “Viewed from the top floor of Walmart, the entire town looks like a toy town, like the train set Daddy always kept set up in the dimestore’s basement toy section.”

Another thread that runs through this book, and Smith treats it with grace and sensitivity, is mental illness. In the essay “Kindly Nervous”, she writes about how her father was embarrassed by his depression. Giving him a copy of William Styron’s slim and masterful memoir of near-suicidal depression, Darkness Visible (1990), was apparently a lifesaver for the family. Smith’s mother was also hospitalized several times for depression. This is another careful, thoughtful essay, and Smith makes clear to note that it should not be viewed as a "sob story". She was never alone. When one or both parent was suffering, there was always the family of Grundy to fill in the missing pieces.

In “Marble Cake and Moonshine”, Smith tells the story of how she went from the adamant conclusion that “…I was not going to write anything about Grundy, Virginia, ever, that as for sure”, to an understanding that the town and the culture was worth exploring. It involves Eudora Welty visiting her class at Hollins College. It involves being introduced to Southern Literature she hadn’t even known existed, including William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness (1951). Again, it’s the smooth economy and grace Smith uses in her storytelling that makes us empathize, especially here:

…one of the most important functions of any good writing teacher is to serve as a sort of ‘matchmaker’…’fixing up’ a new writer with the fiction of a successful published author whose work comes out of a similar background…

It’s this understanding on Smith’s part that her memoir can and should serve as a guide for young writers who might need direction (whether or not they’re aware of it) that makes this an important book.

The key essay to this book, and one that will resonate long for any reader who might have even a remote connection with the disorder, is “Good-bye to the Sunset Man”, originally published in 2004. It tells the story of her son Josh, who died in his sleep in 2003. The official diagnosis was acute myocardiopathy. Her son was young, a brilliant musician, and an overall troubled young person with an official diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder.

What makes this essay so strong is what permeates through the entire book: a refusal to fall into manipulative, emotional button-pushing. It will be remarkable to any reader that Lee Smith, writing and publishing this only a few months after her son’ s death, manages to carefully balance the emotions in this narrative. This story is as much a cautionary tale and a guide for those who might also have loved ones suffering from this as it is a tribute to her son. Consider this: “…All mental illnesses are treatable. Often, brain chemistry has to be adjusted with medication. If symptoms occur, go to the doctor.”

Near the end, she quotes from James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, one of Josh’s favorite songs. It’s about the loss of a loved one and the singer had always though he’d see this person again, but Smith understands that’s impossible: “I know this. But what a privilege it was to live on this earth with him, what a privilege it was to be his mother. There will be a lessening of pain, there will be consolations, I can tell.”

If all we take away from Dimestore is Lee Smith’s fierce determination and strength balanced with a remarkably sweet evocation of a time that will never return, then the writer has done her job. Smith’s voice is refreshingly humble where others might have spent more time pontificating and bloviating. Smith’s childhood was not perfect. Her parents were depressed, and it’s likely (though not concluded by the author) that her son succumbed to that illness in his short life.

That said, this book stands as a testament to the strength of the writing life. Smith’s essays are rich with nostalgia but open to the necessity of change and moving forward, of understanding that the “simple life” as might have been evoked in TV classics like The Andy Griffith Show and Hee Haw (not mentioned here but strong pop culture benchmarks of the past 50 plus years) is much more complex than we ever thought. In better words, here’s how she sums up her profession at the end of “A Life In Books”:

Simply to line up words one after another upon a page is to create some order where it did not exist… Writing cannot bring our loved ones back, but it can sometimes fix them in our fleeting memories as they were in life, and it can always help us make it through the night.

Dimestore should take its place alongside Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings (1984) and Stephen King’s On Writing (1999) as a beautiful and haunting memoir about the American journey.

9

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image