Deadheading by Beth Gilstrap

The name Beth Gilstrap may sound familiar to you. She visited Grab the Lapels not long ago for her Meet the Writer feature. Her personal story intrigued me, and I suppose I wanted to see in what way her life was put into her award-winning collection, one that she says she need to write “to survive.”

The book, Deadheading, contains both short stories and short-shorts (usually a page or two, if you’re not familiar with the form). Characters live along the southeastern side of the U.S. and still use the term “mama” when they’re adults adults and eat baloney. The Carolinas, perhaps, or Virginia (if I had highlighted as I read, I’m sure I could confirm). The intersections of the roads named Palm and Flamingo — definitely not in Florida, we’re told — appear in a few stories if you keep your eyes peeled, so we’re often in the same neighborhood.

It’s not only locations that are recycled, but some characters, for which I’m always grateful. When an author makes a person come to life in a short story and then we’re done with him/her, it’s a bit sad. The treat is to discover him/her a few stories later, or maybe even the next story, but from a different point of view. Such weaving has me convinced there is a novella in Gilstrap waiting to be conceived. Personally, I’d love to read more about Layla and her disappeared husband — and her new neighbors attempting to murder twin daughters — in “Still Soft, Still Whole” and “Deadheading.” There’s a whole novel there, Beth!

Appalachia U.S.A. can be a depressing place, but Gilstrap doesn’t make us crawl around with her characters in the mud in any predictable way (drug abuse, baby daddies, home-grown distilleries). There’s always something beautiful in each story. In “The Denial Weeks,” a couple celebrate their twentieth anniversary by heading to a small lake for a swim, packing sandwiches and drinks in something they’ve rigged together as a cooler. Broke for weeks on end and running out of money, they also run out of gas on the way and continue on foot only to discover a sandwich and beverage missing from the “cooler” placed in the truck bed. Someone worse off than they has taken their picnic, but they recognize need when they see it:

“It’s just bologna and lemonade. Or rather, lemon drink. Let’s eat so we can swim. We wasted a lot of daylight on the drive up.”

“But –“

“But nothing. Don’t you reckon anyone who was hard up enough to take bologna might as well be left alone? I’m trying here.”

“Okay, okay. You can have two [sandwiches]. I”ll be fine with one.”

I pulled the damn thing in two, handing him half.

“Thank you,” he said with a hint of shame.

Although it’s not a totally happy picture, there is grace in togetherness when circumstance demand separation.

The occasionally short-short story sneaks in, and while most depict a moment, others read more like prose poetry, something of which I am not a fan. When I’m reading fiction, I’m in that state of mind. I need more focus when I have a fiction collection in my hands to prevent stories from blurring together, and stumbling into poetry always breaks that concentration. Suddenly, characters are walking metaphors instead of people. However, this is a personal preference and is not to say that other readers won’t appreciate these breaks, like a mint sorbet between courses.

My highest recommendation for a short story collection stems from two things: 1) I remember individual stories in detail, and 2) I miss the characters when their stories are over. With Deadheading, I experienced both.

*Thank you to Beth Gilstrap for sending me a copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.

21 comments

  1. I always laugh when I see bologna sandwiches in a book – for the longest time, even though I’m quite international, curious and well-informed, I had no idea what this was, and correlated it with bolognese, leading to QUITE the messy sandwich in my imagination!

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    • I was just laughing at another blogger in a comment below because we are both from Michigan, which means she knows and has likely eaten both pickled baloney and ground baloney sandwiches (it’s like a tuna sandwich, but it’s baloney).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really like that there is a consistency throughout the stories re. geographical area, and that some characters pop up in more than one story. That is a great idea for a book of short stories and short shorts. Excellent review!

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    • Thanks, Tessa! When I recently reviewed a horror collection, I noted that I enjoyed how different every story was. In that case, I don’t want the monsters to be too similar. However, Gilstrap has a way of creating people and making me care about them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. We had baloney here in Oz too, and Camp Pie which is made from whatever’s left on the abattoir floor. No wonder a guy’s a vegetarian. I used to be always in trouble for running the fuel tank down to zero, which of course meant that I’d run out at the most convenient times. Glad those days are past.
    I’m intrigued by the idea of short shorts verging on prose poetry, and of course linked short stories – keep linking, Beth, and you’ve got a novel.

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    • I was teasing another blogger in this comment section because she’s from Michigan and would likely defend both pickled baloney and ground baloney sandwiches. I have never been a baloney person myself, but that hasn’t sent me running from the other meat options. I’m still impressed that you can be a vegetarian on the road. There must be some nice gas stations in Australia. That, or you have a fridge in your truck and shop in a store.

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      • A fridge in the truck keeps me going with fruit, salads, drinks and yoghurt. I snack sometimes at truckstops – spinach rolls or vegie pasties, and much less frequently, a big cooked breakfast (eggs, toast, hash browns, baked beans, tomatoes). I’ve given up evening meals. The truck has the option of 240v power which means unlimited hot water for coffee and for my morning porridge, and for a microwave if I ever felt the need.

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        • See, even your truck stops having spinach rolls surprises me. That’s not a thing in the U.S. Why did you give up evening meals? Just not feeling it, or too inconvenient? I know Biscuit and my dad are close to your age, and sometimes they have a “Woops, we didn’t eat dinner!” thing. I think they just don’t need as much body fuel.

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          • You can get spinach and ricotta rolls nearly everywhere that sells sausage rolls or pies. And there’s one Australia-wide fuel brand that sells a wide range of vegan and vegetarian pies and rolls.
            I certainly don’t need body fuel in the evening (nor as much as I take in during the day).

            Liked by 1 person

  4. I was sure you had already read this book when I saw the title but of course I was thinking of the Meet the Writer. I really enjoy it when a short story collection has overlap between the stories.

    I’m also enjoying that so many of your comments are focused on the bologna! I’m not sure I’ve actually ever eaten it.

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  5. I’m glad you so enjoyed this collection! it does sound interesting.

    I used to love fried bologna when I was a kid. I ate a lot of it. I haven’t eaten it since I was about 7 years old, though. But I still remember the taste! Also, my son calls me “Mama.” I secretly hope he calls me that forever. 🙂

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  6. Well fried bologna isn’t really a thing up here in Canada, although I could be wrong about that, we are a huge country. I’ve just never come across it in the places I’ve visited. I do like bologna though, I eat a brand that calls it “Lyoner Sausage” and I honestly can’t get enough of it, I just eat it like chips right out of the fridge.

    Liked by 1 person

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