Monday, June 27, 2011

Book Reviews: Trash and Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison

Originally published on The Compulsive Reader:

Paperback: 224 pages
Plume; (October 2002)
ISBN: 0452283515

Bastard Out of Carolina
Plume; Reprint edition (March 1993)
ISBN: 0452269571

In a new essay included as an introduction to the reissue of her 1988 collection of short stories, Trash, Dorothy Allison makes her agenda-- political, emotional, aesthetic-- crystal clear. She is feminist, lesbian, southern "trash" and damn proud of it; so whatever you might think about that, she declares with chip atop shoulder, "let me promise you, you don't want to make us angry." I don't know about the other feminist, southern "trash" lesbians, but if the stories in Trash and her novel Bastard out of Carolina are any indication making Dorothy Allison angry is the very last thing you want to do.

With the exception of the final story, "Compassion," in which three sisters reunite to see their mother through her final days as she lays dying of cancer, added for the new edition, all the stories are from the earlier edition. Although fictional they are very clearly grown from the soil of Allison's own family and relationships. Essentially there are two voices: the young girl growing up in Greenville, South Carolina telling about her Mama and her sisters and her aunts and her grandmother, and the defiant lesbian reveling in her sexuality. What they both have in common is that they are voices of the "other," voices either excluded entirely from the dominant culture or perceived only in stereotype. Allison's work seeks a more honest representation of these voices.

As she says in a 1995 interview much of what has been written about the southern working class, both black and white is basically "romanticized, generic, trivializing nonsense." Then she says:

I want my writing to break down small categories. The whole idea in Bastard Out of Carolina was to give you a working class family that had all the flaws, but to also give you the notion of real people and not of caricatures. A lot of working-class fiction or psedo-working-class[sic.] fiction gives you dismissive caricatures, people who drink and whore and kill each other and are funny about it. I wanted my characters to be charming, so charming they wake you up in the night. That, for me, is political fiction. It takes you out of yourself, it makes you brood on it, it makes you worry about what happens after the book is over. It makes you want to argue with these women and talk to the men.

If this is indeed what she intended, there is no question but that in both the stories and the novel she succeeded. Over and over again she creates characters that are memorable in their flawed humanity: Grandma Shirley in "Meanest Woman Ever Left Tennesee" who tells her husband after her last baby is still born: "You've had your last poke at me. . . .I never wanted it, and if you come to me for it again, I'll cut your thing off and feed it to these damn brats you pulled out of me;" the pool playing Aunt Alma of "Don't Tell Me You Don't Know" who comes to reconcile the narrator with her mother, the narrator in "Steal Away" who gets her revenge on those who look down on her by stealing from them, even the commemorative roses from the welcoming sign as she drives away from her college graduation with her parents.

That the most memorable of these characters are from her childhood and that they reappear in her novel is indicative of the impact of Allison's youthful experience and her need to come to terms with it through her fiction. Indeed it is these South Carolina stories that are the cream of the volume. From the catalogue of death that flows through "River of Names" to "I'm Working on My Charm's" portrayal of the southern waitress, these are the stories that grab the reader and with their brutally honest acknowledgment of the author's love/hate relationship with her roots. The lesbian stories seem to me more self conscious.

It is not that they lack passion. They are filled with it, both physical and emotional. It is not that they are dishonest. They idealize lesbians no more than the other stories idealize "trash." It is simply that they give the reader the feeling that the author is as much interested in the cause as she is in the characters, as much interested in standing up and shouting "I am a lesbian and this is what I do" as she is in the story. None of the characters in these stories seem to me to rise to the level of say Aunt Raylene, the lesbian aunt in Bastard Out of Carolina.

The one exception would be "A Lesbian Appetite." Like "River of Names" this is a catalogue, a catalogue of foods and their associations. Since it is women that are most often the cooks and the sources of food, the leap from childhood biscuits and red beans and rice to the foods associated with adult lovers is not great; Mona and three bean salad from a can, Lee and eggplant, Marty and barbecue, and from there to the taste of love making is even less of a leap. Presented as a series of variations on a theme, the story is a tour de force, and it is not without merit that it has made its way into a good many anthologies of gay and lesbian literature.

Bastard Out of Carolina takes much of the material from the stories, sometimes complete passages verbatim, and reworks it into a rich and powerful novel, almost as if the stories were a trial run.

Ruth Anne Boatwright, nicknamed Bone, is the narrator and the bastard of the title. Beginning with her birth during an automobile accident and her mother's attempts to get the red inked block letters of illegitimate removed from her birth certificate, she chronicles her childhood in Greenville until she is almost thirteen. Allison calls Bone's family "working class," others would probably call them white trash. They are men and women who work hard for their families, but too often cannot manage to get by, sometimes as a result of their own failures--fighting, drinking, pride--sometimes as a result of perceptions of those around them. Their lives are in some sense fulfillment of the expectations of those around them

Bone looks at a school bus filled with children she hates because she knows they are looking down on her. She resents her step father's family because she recognizes that they treat her and her sister like trash.. The sheriff, the manager of Woolworths, the nurse at the hospital, even when they seem to acting nicely are demeaning you in their condescension. Pride, alcohol, fighting--these are the adult response. For Bone it is stealing candy from the Woolworth, befriending the albino Shannon Pearl who is even more an outsider than she is, daydreaming of gospel music stardom.

But in the end it is in each other--in family--that they must find comfort. It is in pecan pie that Mama makes for Uncle Earle. It is in staying to care for the dying Aunt Ruthie and arranging her plants, soothing Aunt Alma when she "goes crazy" and wrecks the house, bringing round an eligible bachelor for Mama after the death of her husband. Other children won't mess with Bone because they know she has older cousins who will see to it that she is taken care of. It is the family that is the safety net.

The problem for Bone is that in her case the safety net fails. Her step father, Daddy Glen, is both a child batterer and a molester. Unaware at first of the molesting and torn by her love for both, her mother accepts his reasons for the beatings, until by the end of the novel she is forced to choose between the two.

Allison is clear that she is breaking new ground in traditional Southern literature. In the story, "Monkeybites," her lover, a literature major, tells the narrator: "You southern dirt-country types are all alike. Faulkner would have put that stuff to use, made it a literary detail." "Southern Gothic--," she continues, " . . .Throw in a little red dirt and chicken feathers, a little incest and shotgun shells, and you could join the literary tradition." The narrator's answer is "Shit and nonsense." These are the caricatures and stereotypes. Her people are not details and background characters. The young Bone stops reading Gone With the Wind because she realizes that she can never be Scarlet O'Hara. "Emma Slattery, I thought. That's who I'd be, that's who we were. . . .I was part of the trash down in the mud stained cabins fighting with the darkies and stealing ungratefully from our betters, stupid, coarse, born to shame and death." In Allison's book Bone is Scarlet O'Hara.

There is something highly personal about Allison's work, not in the sense that her work is autobiographical--although it is easy to make that assumption because of the first person narrator, the reappearance of characters, often with the same names, in the books, and the reliance on detail from her past. The difference between using detail from one's life and writing autobiography should not be ignored. She gives a telling example in her interview: "And then there's girlfriends. I don't know about you, but a lot of my girlfriends have been my stepfather. A lot of my girlfriends have been my uncles, some of whom were truly wonderful men, but not marrying types." Her personal life is in her work as it is in the work of all writers, not in the particular detail or incident necessarily, but in the general truth.

"I try for truth, and language. Sometimes if the language works, I let the detail slide. But I am a write, and I know my own weaknesses. In the end, the stories have to have their own truth and craft," she says in her new introduction. That the work seems so sincere, so personal is a testament to Allison's success as a writer, to her ability to divine the truth that is the heart of fiction.

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