Mon November 17, 2003
Baby, Let's Make a Baby
A drug-crazed redneck is heading down the highway with his kidnapped girlfriend in the trunk. A nervous middle-aged man is driving on a date, and a hundred miles away a young female college professor is getting into her car with her 21-year-old-student lover to drive to Florida to declare their lesbian love to her probably unsuspecting parents.
By Don Noble
Baby, Let's Make a Baby is Kirk Curnutt's debut volume of short stories. The first story, "Etude and Bell Tower," set in a fictional nation which seems part El Salvador, part Bosnia, relates the stresses on a young sniper who is participating in a civil war in which the men on one side are "garden spades" and on the other, "flat-head shovels." It took me a minute, too. That is to say, they are either circumcised or uncircumcised. The civil war is arbitrary, cruel, stupid--your familiar Beirut/Sarajevo type situation.
At the center of the volume is a cluster of stories containing characters who are sad, confused, hurt, alcoholic, in pain, guilty and/or angry, all to do with marriage and divorce, miscarriage, abortion--in short, reproduction, its failure or the prevention of it. The title story (and in my opinion it is an awful title), "Baby, Let's Make a Baby" tells the tale of a man whose wife is unfaithful. He is a decent but excessively orderly fellow, with a lot of schedules and little spontaneity, but, during an encounter while they are legally separated, his wife becomes pregnant. They reunite; she delivers, and the story ends, quite rightly, as follows: "'We made a baby,' she says. Yes, he thinks. Now what?"
The lead story in this volume, "The Overpass," is told in the manner of Thornton Wilder's Bridge of San Luis Rey. Four groups of people are on the move. A little gang of bored boys, one of them retarded, is setting out to amuse themselves on an interstate overpass. A drug-crazed redneck is heading down the highway with his kidnapped girlfriend in the trunk. A nervous middle-aged man is driving on a date, and a hundred miles away a young female college professor is getting into her car with her 21-year-old-student lover to drive to Florida to declare their lesbian love to her probably unsuspecting parents. All these lives will intersect when retarded Stebbie drops a brick from the overpass.
Two of these stories are extraordinarily long. "Call Her Iemanja, But Not in Church" is forty pages, set in Brazil, and, I think, rather flat. The volume ends with a real treat, however, the 53-page "The Story Behind the Story." This piece, nearly a novella, is set in a screening room where a 33-year-old woman, Bethany Bardot, obviously a variation of Britney Spears, is sitting with her two children and watching a made-for-TV documentary about her life when she was a pop music teen idol. Beth had been touring with her evangelist father when she decided to run off with her manager, Tyson "Tyc" Dumas, who packaged her brilliantly. He aspires, in her songs, to Velveeta emotions, to pure cheese.. "I love you, I want you, you hurt me, I hurt you back." Even so, that doesn't mean you can't aspire to "high cheese."
What Bryan Wilson used to call "teenage symphonies to God." Tyc also claims, "Belly buttons . . . I take credit, you know, for making the midriff the accessory that no female between twelve and twenty leaves home unexposed." Much of this story is an homage to Lolita. The writer of the documentary, howover, sees his work in terms of Aristotle's Poetics.: hamartia, catharsis, the works. High Cheese in Ancient Greece. Bethany falls in love with a bad-boy Kurt-Cobain type who commits suicide. She becomes addicted to heroin herself, and finally leaves show business, gets her life in order, and settles down happily with her drug-recovery-counselor husband. Beth's daughter, watching the documentary, says, quite understandably, "Mommy, is that really you?" She's not the only astounded child to ask this question.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.