Books
11:23 am
Mon August 9, 2010

Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger: New and Selected Stories by Lee Smith

When I first held this volume I was disappointed to see it contained only seven new stories with another seven "selected" from previously published works. Like Smith fans everywhere I already own Cakewalk, Me and My Baby View the Eclipse and News of the Spirit. But disappointment soon turned to gratitude as I reread Smith's story of heartbreak and healing, "Bob, a Dog" and then to the delight of reunion with one of my favorite short stories of all time, "Intensive Care."

Audio ?2010 Alabama Public Radio

When I first held this volume I was disappointed to see it contained only seven new stories with another seven "selected" from previously published works. Like Smith fans everywhere I already own Cakewalk, Me and My Baby View the Eclipse and News of the Spirit. But disappointment soon turned to gratitude as I reread Smith's story of heartbreak and healing, "Bob, a Dog" and then to the delight of reunion with one of my favorite short stories of all time, "Intensive Care."

In that story of marriage, love and divorce, Smith makes the most convincing plea anywhere that, sometimes, it's a good thing that "the heart wants what the heart wants." Harold Stikes, a good man, a respectable man, leaves his wife and family for Cherry Oxendine because of her enormous vitality and because she is the true love of his life, and by the end of the story everyone in town agrees. Unfortunately, the opening line of the story tells us: "Cherry Oxendine is dying now and everybody knows it." In this 34-page story, Smith is not encouraging infidelity. Her point is rather that human actions that are obviously sincere, deeply felt, and authentic must be viewed differently from actions that are shallow, hedonistic, opportunistic and selfish.

As is often the case with Smith, the fictions here are mainly about falling in love, passion, courtship, marriage, commitment, disappointment, forgiveness and healing. The protagonists are usually women with much to put up with, such as Mrs. Dee Ann Sims, a loving, overweight wife who is so grateful to have her unfaithful, handsome husband, Billy, she even steals for him.

It was refreshing though, among Smith's loving and forgiving women, to find a really rotten heroine. They don't come any worse than the trashy, conniving redneck Nova, of Ultima Thule. Her husband, Jake, is loving, considerate, and fragile. She is calculating, unfaithful, heartless, careless and finally deadly to her sensitive and rich husband.

The most satisfying and complex of the new stories is, I think, "Stevie and Mama." Here a middle-aged, happily married couple of some 25 years, who had each left a spouse to be together, come to a crisis, although the husband doesn't know it. Roxy has found a cache of letters from a brief affair Willie had 20 years earlier when Roxy was going through a period of bleak depression and withdrawal. She is furious, but what to do about it?

She might end their marriage, just blow it up, or she might absorb the hurt, and not destroy a union that is the envy of all. Smith's stories are sometimes open-ended?in "Intensive Care," Harold might go back to his wife after Cherry Oxendine dies. One never knows for sure.

The stories I have described seem to be mainly serious business. This is essentially the case. Smith has always had a wry sense of humor, however, and that too is present along with the penetrating studies of the human heart. I was tickled by "House Tour," in which a covey of elderly red-hat ladies shows up at the Victorian home of a woman named Lynn, recently abandoned by her husband and drinking way too much wine. Her house is not on the Christmas tour, but since the ladies have exhausted themselves walking there, they insist on coming in, being shown around and finally being served wine and pound cake. The force of old ladies is tidal; there is no denying it.

It may be that, over time, Lee Smith will be remembered mainly for her splendid novels like "Oral History," "Fair and Tender Ladies," "The Last Girls" and the nine others. Her work in the short form, though, is first rate, and each story gives the reader a little blast of pleasure like a really good chocolate truffle in the mouth.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on August 9, 2010. Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m.

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