Spit Baths by Greg Downs

Martha Woodall
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Characters in Greg Downs' short stories have lost their way, with love elusive and hope nearly gone.

Spit Baths

Publisher: University of Georgia Press
ISBN: 0820328464
Author: Greg Downs
Price: $24.95
Length: 160
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2006-10

I was part way through Spit Baths, Greg Downs' singular short-story collection, when word surfaced that Downs lived in Philadelphia. No way. Apart from "The Hired Man" -- a riff about a retired Philadelphia schoolteacher stumbling across a document that suggests George Washington died after falling into the Schuylkill in 1778 and was replaced by an impostor with false teeth -- these 13 pieces of short fiction have scant ties to the Philadelphia area.

But sure enough, a check of Downs' Web site reveals that the city can claim him, if only for a while, now that he has completed doctoral studies in history at the University of Pennsylvania.

But based on this collection, which earned Downs the Flannery O'Connor Award for short fiction, the Mid-Atlantic region has not yet captured Downs' imagination. Most of the stories in Spit Baths are tales from border states, slim shards from Downs' fevered dreams about odd characters and anxious teachers in towns where Kentucky brushes up against Ohio.

Emblems of the South are everywhere, from rented sharecroppers' cabins and battered hope chests to Little Debbie snack cakes. And even those characters who have moved North retain a Southern sensibility and a fixation on race that thrums beneath everything.

Many of the people in these tales are struggling to break from the racism of the past but discover that the weight of generations makes escape impossible. Even Charlie, the protagonist of "Indoor Plumbing," who has grown up in Ann Arbor, Mich., finds that a summer in Kentucky with a bigoted grandfather when he was 12 has left him with more than an abiding interest in the Cincinnati Reds.

The characters in Spit Baths are in transition, fleeing jobs or relations. Sometimes, they've been pushed aside, like the menfolk in "Adam's Curse," the short-short that opens the collection with the tantalizing sentence: "In June, all the women in my family made a pact to live without men. ..."

At other times, the central figures are literally in transit. In "Ain't I a King, Too?", the most resolutely Southern gothic tale, a narrator abandons his family and job in Elizabethtown, Ky., in 1935 to head to Austin, Texas, to work as an aide in a National Youth Administration office for "a program director who became Lyndon Johnson." The narrator makes an abrupt detour when he arrives in Louisiana the day after Huey Long's assassination and discovers that he resembles the slain politician.

Downs uses his grounding in history to make the Depression vivid.

"It was a long way to Texas by turnpike, and longer still because my father's Chevrolet gave out oil. ... I must have passed half the world in those two days down to Louisiana, thousands of men out on the road, hats rimmed with sweat, men dropping suitcases behind them to lose the weight, men walking alone along the desiccated fields."

That narrator and other characters in these stories yearn for emotional connections but have been damaged in some way. Their hopes are blunted, their horizons have shrunk, and they are filled with regret.

In "Snack Cakes," a grandfather's weary sixth wife tells the man's grandson: "I'm just tired, Charlie. Tired of being a woman and tired of him being a man."

While Downs shows that romantic and even familial love remain elusive, his characters want to leave their mark. In the title story, Maw-Maw, a grandmother, spends a summer caring for Crawford, her 8-year-old grandson, before he moves to Missouri with his mother. Her campaign to leave an imprint includes a ritual of spitting into a green towel.

"Then she started scrubbing his face. Every day she did this, and still Crawford hated it. ...

"`The spit catches what the soap won't,'" she tells him.

Downs' masterful story "Black Pork" centers on Branch, a young man who has returned home after one disappointing season with a minor-league baseball team in Iowa to discover that his grandfather is dying and that Ruby-Anne, a young black girl who was Branch's childhood friend, loves him.

When Branch attempts to distance himself from Ruby-Anne's affections, he tells her: "`I ain't going to make you happy. I'm going to make you sad, Ruby-Anne.'"

This story also directly deals with how the aftermath of the nation's toxic racial history intrudes on individual lives. A female college professor who lives nearby sends Branch notes, warning him: "No more white men chasing down black girls just because they can. There are laws now, and there are people who will make sure those laws get enforced until ... statutory rapists like you are history."

With this rich and mesmerizing collection of short fiction, Downs underscores the enduring truth of William Faulkner's observation "The past is never dead. In fact, it's not even past."





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