Book Review: New In Print
A new collection from one of our most fearless writers
Reviewed by John Davidson, Fri., March 20, 2009
Don't Cry: Storiesby Mary Gaitskill
Pantheon, 240 pp., $23.95
Mary Gaitskill is one of our most fearless writers. Her first two story collections, Bad Behavior and Because They Wanted To, earned a level of attention that stumbled awkwardly in the gap between popular acclaim and cult following, and it seemed that for some readers, the sharp intelligence of Gaitskill's prose was obscured by the edgy nature of her subject matter. Many of those stories essayed the inner lives of characters – typically women – led astray by the darker impulses of their sexuality, and it was only with her second novel, Veronica, nominated for a National Book Award in 2006, that Gaitskill earned the recognition that the brilliance and individuality of her language merited. Veronica was an older, wiser book, a meditation on the fleeting nature of beauty, on aging and mortality, and it found success without any sacrifice to the honesty of its author's cool, clear-eyed vision. In "Today I'm Yours," a story from her new collection, Don't Cry, the narrator is a writer who, much like Gaitskill, published her first book at 33 and found herself plunged headlong into troubled waters: "I did not realize I had made monsters, nor how strong they were. ... Everywhere I went, it seemed, my monsters had preceded me, and by the time I appeared people saw me through their aura. ... I left the monsters behind and moved to California." The stories in Don't Cry were written over a period of 10 years, and they offer a palpable sense of an artist in transition. Most notably, there are experiments of form and style, culminating in the title story, a complex morality tale about a woman coming to terms with faith and faithlessness in the wake of her husband's death as she accompanies a friend on an adoption trip to Ethiopia.
Some of these stories – "Folk Song" and "The Agonized Face" – possess a journalistic feel. There's an overt sense here of Gaitskill using stories to work out her ideas on issues of feminism and sexuality, on the war in Iraq. As a consequence, not all of the stories possess the requisite authority. But, when a brilliant leap occurs, as with the technically daring, multiple points-of-view "The Arms and Legs of the Lake," what you're most inclined to feel is gratitude for a writer who continues to take such risks.