SHORT FICTION, it is my pleasure to report, is alive and well. I have just come from the provinces of two recent collections, and all is under control: the voices are sure, the terrain certain. But aside from the general high pleasure provided and the overall and consistent level of skill (a special pleasure in itself), these collections also share this: each writer is dominantly involved in the construction -- the forming and clarifying -- of a large moral vision. The collections are statements and not just the gathering together of stories.
In "Lifetime," the long title-story of Scott Sommer's collection, we encounter the young man Mahoney, a heavy-drinking, educated, divorced, sometimes writer of pornography who cannot leave his past nor go on into a future. Not on this earth. He earns his dulled, blurred existence working as the country's "humane officer." He ministers like an ironic Saint Francis to the animals in his jurisdiction -- the trapped, hurt, threatened cats and dogs and turtles, deer, fox, birds. For them he does what he can, which is not much, but for the human animals he can do nothing. He can conveive of nothing that can be done. "We live by available flight . . . And there simply wasn't enough to go around." The human condition as he perceives it has dismantled him. At 29 he is hollowed out.
As Mahoney sinks into the slough of his drugged, drunken, unimpassioned and despairingly kinky sex, sitting around in The Last Stop bar waiting to drown in the swill life has made of his life, waiting for and expecting nothing, he is suddenly buoyed up and begins to imagine redemption as he falls in love with Judith Chapters (J.C.!). She is a vital, attractive woman nine years older than Mahoney, a courageous, firm, witty battler for Causes. She will not give up on life and the proposition that it can be made good, better, than it is. In the story, which is set in the shadow of Three Mile Island, Judith, a waitress, works as a fulltime activist fighting against nuclear power.
Against the ebbed-life, crazed background and context of the story, Judith Chapters burns brightly with hope and determination, undaunted by (though apprised of) the long odds. What is life for if not to deal with it? Mahoney raises his head and his heart briefly to her warmth and light. But not for long. Against his hope, he has come too close to a sapping, weakening truth. He knows too much, suspects too much. He cannot really move.
"Mahoney wondered if there was anything to our weary lives but a burdensome past and a future of accelerating ghoulishness -- because the halflife alone of plutonium made the lifetimes between Adam and Eve's and Mahoney and Judith's seem little more than one brief spree of purposeless begetting."
He does not have to wait long to resolve his wondering or to have ended his brief remission from universal grief. Judith Chapters is shot and killed by her displaced (by Mahoney) alchoholic lover.
The story "Lifetime" is far richer in ironies and complexities and characters than a brief description can convey. And it is richer in this sense than the other admirable stories in the collection because thematically it ranges more widely, reaches up into the possibility and the condition of love and the chance for a kind of personal salvation even as it measures the more terrifying bleak likelihoods.
In Sommer's other stories we are not always sure enough about why his characters have succumbed so completely or so quickly to their self-destructive (and self-pitying) condition. Surely there are people "like this," yet they are not simply or widely representative of life's options. Surely life does not fail so completely. But I do not think that the narrowed focus of the stories should be mistaken for Sommer's deeper idea. He is not saying that we are all like this -- freakish malcontents, drug pushers, whores, 10-year-old burnt-out cases, seething sufferers. Rather I think he intends for us to realize that he is looking at an infection (the sick disease of modern life) and the prognosis is not good. If Sommer's fiction is, as I believe, socially diagnostic, then his method and style are fitting, where often we see and hear a dispassionate, tough reporting, a seeing but not necessarily a judging, a level presentation of characters who are themselves often not level or calm, who are often outrageous or glibly sardonic or teeth-grindingly angry or simply stupid. Colorfully vapid. Sommer's approach is to present the texture more than the shape of the consequences of three-quarters of a century of human debasement.
Turning to John William Corrington's The Southern Reporter one is surprised by the freshness with which he uses an old and honorable tradition. Just when we think that the Southern Voice of Faulkner, O'Connor, Welty et. al. has been played out or attenuated by innumerable mimics, along comes Corrington to wring from it a familiar but invigorated music -- the insouciant energy, the peculiarly southern rhythms, the idiom so excellent for curse and imprecation or emphasis. But the language as used here is more than a mere entertainment in itself. In Corrington, as in the work of his great predecessors, his language often creates the southern Character, the literary figure who enjambs the outrageous and the serious and the absurd and the truth. In "The Man Who Slept with Women," there is a narrator's egregious Uncle Shad and his mother, who grew up in a cornfield and waitressed in the Jumbo Grille and got a degree in French Literature from SMU ("cause Jesus and Judas knows it ain't a thing from here to Brownsville as cultured as a degree in French Literature") and married a man who struck it rich in oil. She is perfectly representative.
"She slapped the arms of the chair. -- Well I ain't. Not near. She was getting mad again and that far-off wild-assed Davy Crockett twang was coming on, along with some home-style grammar. Right there, between the cultivated and the vicious, you could love her."
Somewhere "between the cultivated and the vicious." What a wonderful insight into the mind reflected in so much of the literature of this region!
And Corrington also picks up on the southern themes of land, of place, of the past, of a moral tradition in collision with a rising wave of beastly violence loosed upon civilization now that the levee of faith in the certainties of church and property and family is breached.
In "Nothing Succeeds" we see Corrington's judgment about this cultural collapse as we follow the stable, rooted, sane representative of the valuable past -- the lawyer Landry -- on his quest for the scion and last heir of a great Louisiana house. We follow Landry to California, to "Sodom by the sea," in his search for Lance Boudreaux III. His journey is a descent into chaos and Hell, where he encounters what must be the end of civilization. And yet it is also a journey into the possibility of expanded consciousness as well. So where do we stand? Where can we stand?
Time and again in his fiction Corrington steps back from simple conclusions or narrow judgments. On the contrary, he is especially gifted in his ability to evoke moral ambiguities, to consider postures and attitudes other than what might be his own. And he plays fair by them. He allows for doubt and uncertainty and divergent possibilities, or at least considerations. We may ultimately judge the California scene adversely, but we are not allowed to be easily comfortable about the alternatives, those from which Lance Boudreaux III (and Lance II, for that matter) have struggled to escape.
Nowhere is the moral dilemma better, more dramatically, phrased than in the major story of the collection, "The Southern Reporter," and nowhere more centrally than in the scene where Caswell, the assistant district attorney, describes the possible dynamics of the rape in the case he is presently prosecuting. He makes the possible luridly probable. (Then who is victim, who "might lie silent for twenty years or more and yet not be slain."
In a terrific and terrifying irony, Dewey, the court reporter, after serving much of his life as a silent amanuensis to Law, to Order, to Justice, is broken by a personal memory and by the apparent failure of the Law in this particular case. The girl has been grieviously wronged, he believes, by the man but also by the most precious of civilization's mechanisms, the Law. Or by the imperfect process of the Law, the inability of Law to leap the gap between itself and Justice. But if Law is powerless to serve Justice, then Man still is able to do so. Dewey sets out to do what is Right. No matter that he is disastrously wrong (though even here Corrington creates widening ambiguitiese. He has gone to slay the ravening beast that he recognizes in Caswell, in the defense lawyer, in the accused rapist, in the girl's brother, and even in the girl, but above all in himself. Even after all his silent years. He does not understand or perhaps he cannot accept that all we have on this earth is the fragile structure of the Law, the simulacrum of Order, only Decorum and not the real thing, which is forever beyond us. "Vengeance is mine," saith the Lord. Justice, apparently, He has left to fumbling Man.
If one is a collector of masterpieces, "The Southern Reporter" is a story to be acquired.