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Illustration By Penny Van Horn

Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail


by Bobbie Ann Mason

Random House, 208 pp., $22.95

Bobbie Ann Mason doesn't write a bad sentence. She doesn't waste a phrase or seem to know a single cliché. None of her details are boring, and not a line of her dialogue is flat. Her language is fresh, lucid, completely unmannered, and touched with innumerable grace notes of humor and feeling.

To read these stories is like walking past houses in the dark -- the lights, the people, music spilling out the open window, all vivid and entrancing and, for a moment, the only real thing in the world. But then she draws the curtains and drags you to the next house, as any writer of short stories must do, except even more so. Do they find the child lost in the swamp? Does Jackie get to keep the daughter she's unofficially adopted or must she send her back to Arkansas? Does Liz get back together with Peyton, now that he's out of jail? Does Fentress get her medicine in time? Is Annie revealed as a spy?

You won't find out here, because tying plot threads up neatly is not the point of these stories. Mason's interest is to show you who a person is and how they got that way. She traces the road that brought them to the place where she finds them, leaving open the question of where they will go from here.

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And many of these folks have come a ways. As in her acclaimed Shiloh & Other Stories, Mason focuses on people from Kentucky, but now these Kentuckians are on the move. They are taking a bus trip to a gambling casino in Tunica, or have flown to Oklahoma to arrange a funeral and pick up a child. They are spending a month in London, or several months in Atlanta (where they've been sent from Texas on an espionage assignment for a chain restaurant). They've driven to Memphis, when they were only supposed to be going to Nashville. Several have just gotten back to Kentucky -- from Florida, Alaska, Santa Fe, or Saudi Arabia.

Or, as in the first story, they've just gone as far as Paducah to look for a man. "Jazz" illustrates how well you can get to know a character by the questions she asks, the details she notices, and the observations she makes. The narrator of this story has been through a lot. She has lost a daughter to meningitis, and two husbands have come and gone. Now her other kids are grown and she is spending the evening drinking too much at the Top Line with a suave lover who has a fancy new bra for her in his pocket.

This woman has earned her wisdom but wears it lightly. She tries hard to be nice to people, she says, but it's complicated. "You start feeling guilty for your own failures of generosity at just about the same point in life when you start feeling angry, even less willing to give." Her experience and the odd blend of fatalism and hopefulness it's left her with are implicit in the way she sees things. "The cab of his truck was stuffy, that peculiar oil and dust smell of every man's truck I've ever been in."

So when this character figures out something important about men, see if it doesn't do you as much good as a whole self-help book:

It occurred to me that it takes so long to know another person. No wonder you can run through several, like trying on clothes that don't fit. There are so many to choose from, after all. But when I married Jim Ed, it was like an impulse buy, buying the first thing you see. And yet I've learned to trust my intuition on that. Jim was the right one all along, I thought recklessly. And I wasn't ever nice to Jim Ed. I was too young then to put myself in another's place. Call it ignorance of the imagination.

One particularly endearing characteristic of Mason's is the blend of sympathy and gentle mockery with which she regards her characters. Take "Charger," which begins with this description of the title character: "As he drove to the shopping center, Charger rehearsed how he was going to persuade his girlfriend, Tiffany Marie Sanderson, to get him some of her aunt Paula's Prozac." Tiffany Marie herself is ditzy white trash. "She wore tight layers of slinky black. She had her hair wadded up high on her head like a squirrel's nest, with spangles hanging all over it. She had on streaks of pink makeup and heavy black eyebrows applied like pressure-sensitive stickers. She was gorgeous."

But in case you think Mason is going to make fun of this girl, instead she shows you how much Tiffany knows. "See the moon?" she says to her boyfriend, trying to explain the source of her high hopes for their seemingly limited future, "I am just thrilled out of my mind to see that moon. I love seeing the moon. I love going to church. I love work. I love driving at night. I love getting sleepy and snuggling up to you."

Another self-help book in a couple of sentences. From a character I wouldn't think I had something to learn from.

Only God and Bobbie Ann Mason can see how pathetic and lovable and hilarious and brilliant people can be all at once. And because of that, she can make you bond with anyone. Some half-crazy guy living on canned hominy, TV, and an Insight of the Day because his wife left him. Or Liz, the one who went to the gambling casino and was followed by her estranged husband, though one or both of them should have been at the bedside of his comatose mother. Their bus driver gets lost on the way home and Peyton sticks his hand inside her shorts and in that moment, for that moment, it all makes sense to her. And to us, too.

Marion Winik's Rules for the Unruly: Living an Unconventional Life was published this spring.

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Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail: Stories, Bobbie Ann Mason

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