Books
2:26 pm
Wed May 28, 2008

Our Former Lives in Art

The day in which a story collection such as Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger could create a major stir is, alas, long gone. Maybe that's too bad. These are very clever and satisfying stories. They deserve some readers.

After finishing her MFA in fiction writing here at the University of Alabama, Jennifer Davis went on to win the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award with her collection Her Kind of Want, published by the University of Iowa Press in 2002.

Now, six years later, Davis has released her second collection, a Random House Trade Paperback Original.

Our Former Lives in Art is comprised of nine stories, with a total of 191 pages. The stories are set in contemporary east Alabama, in the territories between Sylacauga, Lake Martin, Alexander City and Auburn. The characters are Southerners, but mainly varieties of middle class, neither planters nor sharecroppers.

The title story, which concludes the volume, contains an intriguing conflict. Peter, the father of a seven-year-old boy, is a garden-variety Alabama male who renovates old houses for a living. He loves his wife, loves fishing and hunting, drives a pick-up truck, eats beanie-weenies and Vienna sausage when in the great outdoors. And he loves his son. The son, Fischer, however, is special. Not only was his first spoken word "art"?not "Mama" but "art"?Fischer is interested in absolutely nothing except drawing and, before he was three, began to render Civil War scenes, complete with detailed ordnance and grievously wounded, even gutted, soldiers, grimacing in pain. The shrink at Auburn, after putting Fischer under hypnosis, declares, "Clearly it's a past life." Peter says of the shrink, "Clearly, she's a moron."

Strange, but how else to explain these things? How did Mozart know all that music before he could read? Why was Picasso able to draw perfectly realistically as a child? Had they practiced a lot, earlier, at some other place, some other time, some other life?

Peter loves his son and we can all hope for the best.

Another fine story is "Witnessing," in which young Rose, a very ordinary girl who works in the parts department of an auto dealership, is summoned by her lover Baxter's wife, Cecilia, to keep her company. Cecilia is older, stylish, beautiful, and dying of cancer, and she knows about Rose. She and Rose spend the day very uncomfortably in a shabby motel room with Mr. Meekle, a shaman and herbal healer, fake perhaps. By the end of their time together, the two women have bonded, tied together by fate, by Baxter, by the knowledge of the inevitability of death.

I have always been a sucker for fiction about fiction writers, and "Pilgrimage in Georgia" is such a story.

Louis Peter is a burned-out novelist teaching at a college in Chicago, living with his wife, Esther, who is fairly content with their life. Louis decides to take early retirement and move them to a more "authentic" place, a place where "real people" live, a town called Blyght, Georgia, which "wallowed in decay" with "crumbling false-front buildings" and "graying white-columned" homes in the "good section of town."

Of course this can't work. Louis drinks more and more and becomes buddies with a skinny, feckless youth named Scooter, whom Louis takes to be a would-be writer. Scooter's role in Louis's movie is to be the worshipper, the acolyte admirer, but Scooter publishes three novels, the third of which caricatures the dried-up middle-aged writer who foolishly romanticized small-town life and whose wife has left him.

The day in which a story collection such as Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger could create a major stir is, alas, long gone. Maybe that's too bad. These are very clever and satisfying stories. They deserve some readers.

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