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 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.