In You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, Alice Walker reveals her mastery and her scope. These are rich enjoyable stories. A number of them are funny, but concede nothing for their humor. They do not condescend, diminish, take cheap shots. They show no less humanity and depth than the serious stories, and our distance from the characters is usually no greater.
Nonetheless "Nineteen Fifty-Five," for instance, made me laugh out loud several times in a small plane being tossed around in turbulent weather to the extent that the other passengers began glaring at me nervously. It is about a black singer named Gracie Mae (she reminded me of Big Mama Thornton) whose song is bought by the manager of a white male singer, who also buys up all the copies of her record. The white male singer (who is a thinly disguised and unsympathetically treated Elvis) goes on to great riches but never understands the song.
Because he feels guilty about using her material, the white singer keeps giving her presents, while always trying to understand the song that has made him. He even attempts to share his success with Gracie Mae by taking her on the Tonight Show with him. But the audience wants the prettied up imitation, not vast and earthy and very black Gracie Mae. The whole story is a fascinating exploration of the relationship between original black musicians and the white pop music that takes their work and exploits it commercially. The style is racy and colloquial. Here's Gracie Mae talking:
"And then I see this building that looks like if it had a name it would be The Tara Hotel. Columns and steps and outdoor chandeliers and rocking chairs. Rocking chairs? Well, and there's the boy on the steps dressed in a dark green satin jacket like you see folks wearing on TV late at night, and he looks sort of like a fat dracula with all that house rising behind him, and standing beside him there's this little white vision of loveliness that he introduces as his wife." t
"The Lover," amusing in a quieter vein, is about a black poet at a writers' colony such as MacDowell, "a woman who, after many tribulations in her life, few of which she ever discussed even with close friends, had reached the point of being generally pleased with herself." It concerns a wholly calculated love affair.
"Petunias" is a short story just half a page long, completely chilling. It is hard to imagine a more economical piece of prose narrative. Like many of these stories, it is perfect to perform aloud. A companion piece is "Elethia," less than four pages long but setting out a whole social world, both past and present in all its grotesque horror.
Walker has a sense of the little nuances of history as in "The Source" which traces the lives of two women in their occasional and usually jarring, even antagonistic encounters, over 20 years, until at a bar in Alaska they suddenly appreciate something of each other's reality.
One of the best stories is the dry amusing account of a great old lady of literature going to a rubber chicken banquet at a college to receive her 111th major award.
"Now she had liver spots on her cheeks and her hair was slowly receding, but that wasn't so bad. She could look infinitely worse and there'd still be a luncheon for her, a banquet later tonight and book parties and telegrams and people beaming at her well into the future. Success was the best bone structure. Or the best cosmetic. But was she a success? she asked herself. And herself answered, in a chorus, exasperated, Of Course You Are! Only a small voice near the back faltered. She stifled it."
Not all the stories work. "Coming Apart" is a piece whose point of view on pornography moves me but which doesn't make it as a story. The husband and wife are stick figures, and the happy ending feels forced. Both "Porn" and "Advancing Luna -- and Ida B. Wells" are stories that also focus on sexual politics, in both cases in the context of the civil rights movement and the days of common if painfully difficult interracial romances. Both, however, are fleshed out and move by subtle and surprising turns.
If I had to select one adjective for these stories, I would say sophisticated in the best sense of the word. These are stories from a woman who has under her control as a writer a wide range of material, from the lives of the ordinary poor to the lives of artists and academics, from political organizers to well-heeled businessmen, and who can enter their experiences with sympathy but without sentimentality. She can look at an experience from top, from bottom, from the black side, from the white side, and observe how reality changes. In all of Walkers fiction one can feel a keen and supple intelligence.