by Mary Ann Taylor-Hall
Sarabande Books, 225 pp., $13.95 (paper)
Reading short stories, especially whole collections of short stories, often leaves me depressed. Perhaps this is partly their nature: Their brevity is sad in itself, echoing as it does the evanescence of our own lives and relationships, the transience of our triumphs and disappointments, all crammed together and jumbled with other people's like mittens in a lost-and-found box. And as for triumphs versus disappointments, aren't the latter the far more common theme? Happy stories are few and far between, big tragedies tend to get book-length treatment, and this leaves the short story writer as the curator of things gone somewhat awry.
In How She Knows What She Knows About Yo-Yos, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall does a deft job of it. In each of five stories, she creates vivid characters in memorable settings; she gives each bright hopes, then gently dashes them. The title story, the strongest of the group, recounts the seduction and swindling of the orphan girl Undella by a traveling yo-yo salesman. With funny dialogue, Baptist villains, and juicy descriptions of food and sex, this tale outshines the inevitable bummer in its plot. This is also true of "Todo el Mundo," in which a young American schoolteacher struggles with the intense sexual vibrations surrounding her during a stay on a Caribbean island.
However, the other three stories just didn't have enough sex or food or something; they felt draggy and glum. In "Banana Boats," an elderly woman whose husband has had a heat stroke reflects on the lovelessness of her marriage, founded upon a big unacknowledged lie. Unfortunately, I didn't like either of the characters well enough to sympathize. In the other two stories, the author seems to have been more fascinated by her settings than her plot or characters. The heroine of "Advanced Beginners" deals with a woman living alone on a farm; the Academy Award goes to the farm. Similarly, "The World's Room" finds an American girl becoming estranged from her English boyfriend in a tiny village on the British coast. At nearly 70 pages, the details of this windy place are sketched too lovingly by far.
Taylor-Hall's first book, a novel called Come and Go Molly Snow, made this reviewer's 10-best list for 1995. The story of a talented young bluegrass fiddler whose five-year-old daughter dies in an accident and who is embroiled in a difficult romance with another musician, it accomplishes rare feats: making something lovely out of pain; showing how our lives can become the cure for themselves. I can't quite say that about the sad stories in "Yo-Yos," though my respect for this author and interest in her future work still run high.
Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.