When I’m ready for a break from Emerson and Thoreau—currently the only titles beyond a guide to Greek mythology loaded on a gifted Kindle—I gravitate toward points on the literary number line that aren’t controlled by fampires and other figures of the character undead. (And yes, I hope I just coined a word; may famous vampires soon depart, apart from Barnabas Collins, who may drip blood across my faux Persian carpet anytime.)
But I digress. Readers in Armonk and elsewhere who are looking to detach from literary fashions, including, but not limited to, ravenous warring real-a-teen novels, or wishing to detox from that trio of purportedly mesmerizing sub-dom-hero-sans-sports-fan fixation tomes, might consider an intellectual spring cleaning. Cogito ergo lego: ergo, a balm, gentle reader; a bright body of well-crafted work sure to sweep the mind clear—kind of like a road trip in a convertible, say across Route 66.
Lynne Barrett’s singular trio of short story collections provides a swell road trip, one to enjoy revisiting periodically. While not a classic trilogy (the books were published by Carnegie Mellon University Press over a 14-year span), her characters resonate, and, in particular, her (bad) girls are the real thing.
In her first book, The Land of Go (1988), there’s Patty, the wisenheimer teenage clerk of “Inventory” whose panties are the subject of intense speculation. She’s considering a co-worker in a sensual new light, and her forthright perspective is a snort. In “Moon Walk,” from which the book’s astute title is taken, New Jersey college student Timmie Moore goes looking for trouble and finds it—along with a clever dose of politics and patriotism—in the person of Bobby Giancaspro, a handsome, if intellectually unworthy, crush who’d ignored her ugly duckling phase. Ah, the resonant splendor of events being left to the reader’s imagination!
Much of Barrett’s work is humorous, and all of it is expertly constructed and restrained, allowing readers rare latitude to conceive of her characters’ milieu and quandaries without incredulity. One example of this discreet command is “Out with the Crowd.” Insightful and adroitly witnessed, it follows Heather on a nervous excursion with her newish boyfriend, the divorced Duffy. She observes the men who populate one of his natural habitats, a baseball stadium, as one might perceive any indigenous population. When the perspective shifts, it is simply Heather’s “brave, entreating ugliness” that Duffy finds compelling. The precision of phase shift, and phrase, sticks.
Then there’s the multifarious Melissa, the indolent mistress of the gleeful “Realty.” She’s been installed in an apartment after a stint living in her blue Malibu by Charley Yow, regional real estate mogul and late-middle-aged rascal, who has become her lover and boss. In return, he charges her with convincing Richard, one of his company’s failed salesmen, to quit his job. Melissa navigates the complications that arise when the luckless Richard’s uptight wife appears to accuse her of stealing her man. (If she only knew!) Melissa is a broad who knows her own desires, limitations, and whims well enough, and she’s a survivor who has mastered the art of landing on her feet. Left alone in a Southern town to fend for herself after being dumped by a previous paramour, she recognizes that it was
not my body that marks me as a wicked woman. It’s my voice. My Yankee speech. After my first party here, a man followed me to my car, sure I’d been inviting. Why? I swore, I was sarcastic. Then the guy I cared for kept popping home, expecting to catch me fooling around, because my affection had a sardonic, unfaithful edge. I tried to reform.
Melissa boasts that she’d “gotten out of practice on my meanness,” and admits that it’s not “mercy, no, must have been greed” that makes her crave her most desired pearl, a few more stolen hours with Charley.
One of the benefits of discovering (or revisiting) an author, rather than bluntly consuming a product that is rapidly replaced and frequently forgotten, includes the pleasure of observing and enjoying the care that she puts into developing characters. Barrett’s second collection, The Secret Names of Women (1999) showcases heroines who are a bit older, but not necessarily wiser, than those in her first book. They are still exposed, and as driven by intricate and sometimes inexplicable (to themselves) motives as earlier protagonists.
In “Macy is the Other Woman” the title character wonders “how she got so tough” during a particularly blithe bout of lying to an acquaintance, Emily, about an upcoming trip. During a scorching Fourth of July weekend in Washington, D.C. spent with Jay—who, not coincidentally, is Macy’s lover and Emily’s husband—he inadvertently calls her by his wife’s name. Through a sunbaked, sweaty, sex-dense haze, Macy begins to understand the nature of absurdity, as well as the futility of her bit part in Jay’s narcissistic starring role as serial deceiver. And although Macy considers herself “post-devotion,” the reader wonders, with more than a bit of discomfort, where she’ll end up.
“The Former Star Carlson,” 32 and never married, doesn’t want to be married; rather, she “wants to have been married.” On a hot Houston night, Star is tossing her boyfriend and his belongings out of her apartment for “standing with the fridge open, vapor pouring dreamily around him while he ate the last of the ice cream out of the carton with a tablespoon.” While Star and her landlady quaff beers and toss the empty bottles onto the lawn, a plan is hatched, and before long Star is engaged to marry an odd neighbor, Estonian ergonomist Basil, so that he can apply for a green card. When Basil’s flamboyant immigration attorney Robert shows up, he warns Star that she could be in for a tough time with the INS, because “patriarchy is sentimental.” Everyone has an elusive ulterior motive, rendering the story comical and wise.
There are hand gestures to modern life, odd nods to the ancients, and shrewd winks to an unseen audience. The rockers of “Meet the Impersonators” delineate the flip side of American Idol (spoiler alert: their hit is “Love is the Great Crippler of Young Adults”), while “Beauty” reads almost like a myth: Susan, Goddess of Shady Spots, in transcendent maternal mode, sheds her childhood. The story slyly evokes that of Johnny Appleseed.
Barrett is better known for her forays into mystery; she won an Edgar Allan Poe Award for the story “Elvis Lives,” first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The expedition into noir continues in Magpies (2012), which was the winner of the gold medal at this year’s Florida Book Awards. The centerpiece of Magpies is “The Noir Boudoir,” which at 30 pages is nearly on its way to becoming a novella. One of the few pieces that follow a male narrator, it features Ray Strout: a retired cop, paper ephemera aficionado, and “magpie”—“small-time antiques dealers, which is to say we are collectors who sell to support our habit.” The clever twist here is that Barrett’s bad girl, femme fatale Helena Dorsett, reaches out to her audience from beyond the grave. Ray, who has “learned the worth of the worthless” and whose cop’s intuition is always on, begins investigating a burglary . . . This would go well with a bowl of popcorn and a box of Barton’s chocolates. (Look it up!)
The girls of Magpies are a bit more subdued, because life’s externals are scarier and stormier, and the passage of time takes on more of a lead role. Barrett’s heroines are mature here. There are the sisters whose lifelong rivalry is reflected in the dull holiday luster of their mother’s death in “Gift Wrap.” There are several dances to the edge of love-plus-events-beyond-one’s-immediate-control, such as unpredictable weather and love (“One Hippopotamus”); or car trouble, vulnerability, and love (“Texaco on Biscayne”); or one’s 15 minutes of fame and love (“Gossip and Toad”). And “Cave of the Winds,” where the characters from “One Hippopotamus” pop up again, is at its core a love poem to inevitability.
Lynne Barrett’s dedicated readers, of which I am one, sometimes lament her relatively small number of books, but let it be noted here (for the new reader) that she has spent her career teaching writing, and is well-known as both a professor (at Florida International University) and editor (of, variously, The Florida Book Review and Gulf Stream Magazine) for more than 30 years. Yes, there is but a slight chance that her gem-like books will reach a wide audience, which makes them more cherished. Even with blurbs from the New York Times that include the phrase “wry, lucid optimism,” one can lament that her work is not more widely known. But as a reader, I enjoy returning to these quiet roads, to the bad girls—and better women—who populate Barrett’s fiction. Like an invisible line of lesser known heroines that stretches from Colette to Dawn Powell and beyond, they are prisms, multi-dimensional divinities of work-a-day domains, able to rise to routine and sensuality, to progress from mundane to sublime. And fortunately, they are not subject to that most trendy and tiresome literary test, that of being vanquished by extremes.
(For upcoming readings and more information: www.lynnebarrett.com.)