Stories that Sing

Jill McCorkle has cemented her place among today’s preeminent Southern writers

Photo: Tom Rankin

Author Jill McCorkle with her border collie, Okra.

Jill mccorkle’s Going Away Shoes, a new title from Algonquin Books, brings us eleven marvelous stories about family life—divorce, death, children, parents, and crime—that are funny, funny, and funny. But don’t let the funny fool you. There’s tragedy here, and sadness. And a wisdom that sings and comforts. This is McCorkle’s ninth book of fiction. Her five novels and four story collections have established her as a master of both forms.

An interesting element of these adventures is their enchanted wandering. You can’t quite predict the coming scenery as the plot travels along, holding you, wide-eyed, while it takes a smooth left turn, a sharp right. You hang on—as if clinging to a roller coaster.

In “Driving to the Moon,” a story about a woman and her old (and dying) boyfriend, we find several potential story beginnings and endings, but the narrative holds together seamlessly, with a wonderfully focused power. This story is at the same time political, perennial, mysterious, religious, and graceful. And so sad it hurts—yet light, even funny, in places. A classic. Like other stories found in Going Away Shoes, it holds more significant themes and action than many good novels.

And many brief passages in this book carry more weight than many published stories. Consider the heavy loss portrayed in this short paragraph about a man’s relationship with a woman:
Their dad laughed at everything Rosemary Looney said and did. He laughed in a way that they had never even heard and that they didn’t hear again in all the years left of his life once she was gone.
Or consider the humor and compass of this scene when a wife studies a photograph of her husband’s ex:
…Theresa holds eye contact with the ex-wife and thinks: I am here and you are way back there.
But Roger is in both places.

In the story “Happy Accidents,” a paint-by-numbers enthusiast says this about Bob Ross, the real-life deceased, soft-voiced TV instructor of landscape painting: “Day after day, he springs back to life with the promise of something new. He’s a lot like Jesus when you think about it—the second chance, the promise of something better, the beard.” So funny—how could “the beard” have been planned? And that’s a secret of the craft behind these stories: They feel too real to have been planned out by a writer; rather, the stories just happen out in the world as we watch and listen, captivated.

The dialogue is so right-on, so accurate, it is heard, and that fact goes a long way to making the stories stand up and walk. The characters live in our own weather, our own space and air—all this as a consequence of the invisible discipline of a receptive and obsessed artist, a discipline producing a precision of shading and line that makes the stories not only walk, but often dance and jump around. And those stories told in first-person point of view come to us as real as dirt, soap, and perfume, as compelling as a scream or a moan.

The endings of several stories are remarkable. For example, the title story up to its last sentence strikes a target that the reader has perhaps begun to anticipate. But the story with its last sentence hits a target the reader never thought of. And therein, we witness a difference between good storytelling and great storytelling, between high craft and genius, or to borrow from Mark Twain, “the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

You can’t skim any of these stories. Many sentences are magnetic, arresting. A reader a century from now will say, “Was it really, way back then—with these fictional divorces and wives and husbands and mothers and fathers and children—as much like today as this seems to be? Listen to this: ‘People bury spouses and go right back to work. Disasters happen and people pay their bills and go to the grocery store.’ And this: ‘She was aware of how she didn’t use her husband’s name when speaking to [her former sweetheart] Billy.’”

The power of these stories guarantees this book the high compliment of helping us preserve the heritage brought to us through the stories of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor.