IN BOBBIE ANN MASON's story, "The Ocean," a retired Kentucky farmer named Bill and his wife, Imogene, have sold all their possessions to buy a deluxe camper and they are heading toward Florida, toward the ocean. They pass through Nashville, which they visited 35 years earlier when they were newlyweds. Back then, Bill watched Imogene as she slept next to him in their bed at the Andrew Jackson Hotel. Now Imogene's face is lined and she cries to herself as they watch TV in the camper. Bill does not recognize a thing in Nashville. They drive on to Plains because Imogene wants to see the president's hometown. Plains has become a circus town, lined with campers and tour buses. Crowds of people stand around Billy Carter's filling station. Bill cannot make the connection between Plains and the White House. It is something like the connection between the young Imogene and the old Imogene or the connection between their life on the farm and their new life on the highway in the luxury camper. Bill is not even sure that he can find a connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific now, thanks to Jimmy Carter, who has given away the Panama Canal. Somehow, the goofy president from Georgia seems to symbolize everything that has gone awry. And still he shows up on television, night after night, flashing his "phony grin." Bill feels that he can see right through the man.
In recent years, there have been a fair number of "phony grins" flashed around to represent the South -- from the buffoonery of programs like Hee Haw and The Dukes of Hazzard to the countless signposts which have brought us Colonel Sanders' giant plastic smile. Now, with this first collection of Bobbie Ann Mason's stories, we have a kind of antidote to all this silliness. Because Mason's Kentucky characters are made of solid stuff and she means for us to take them seriously even while they strike us as funny. They are working-class people -- farmers, store clerks and truck drivers -- and their speech tends to be as quaint and picturesque as the Kentucky landscape. "I get all sulled up," Imogene tells Bill. "You scared the wadding out of me." In the story, "Nancy Culpepper," a mother says to her college-educated daughter, "I guess you think we're just ignorant. The way we talk." "No," the daughter replies, "I don't." And that is the key to why most of these 16 stories succeed so well. Like that college-educated daughter who has finally come to appreciate home, Mason never assumes that her characters are ignorant. She lets us see the humor in their situations, but she knows better than to set them up as fools.
In the title story, "Shiloh," which was included in the 1981 edition of Best American Short Stories, Mason has given her heroine the name Norma Jean. Near the end of this story, Norma Jean, who has been taking night school courses, explains to her husband, Leroy, that his name means "the king." "Am I still king around here?" he asks. Norma Jean is drifting away from him and he cannot figure out what to do about it. "What does your name mean?" he asks. "It was Marilyn Monroe's real name," she answers. And with this simple exchange, the whole story clicks into sharp focus. It doesn't matter that Norma Jean's name is a cliche as long as she knows it's a cliche. And it is apparent as well that she knows just what this cliche says about her life. When she's not in night school, Norma Jean spends her free time playing her electric organ. She buys The Sixties Songbook and learns to play every tune in it. "I didn't like these old songs back then," she tells Leroy, "but I have this crazy feeling I missed something."
Mason situates her stories in western Kentucky, somewhere near the city of Paducah, a collection of syllables which clash as exotically as Timbuktu. And in some ways, the details of her characters' lives must seem as remote as Timbuktu to the readers of The New Yorker and The Atlantic where most of these stories appeared originally. Mason's people eat poke salet and fried pies with white sauce. They clean hen houses and sometimes catch mites from the chickens. In their spare time, they're likely to assemble a miniature log cabin out of Popsicle sticks or fashion a card table from an old bulldozer sprocket. On the other hand, these same people are just as likely to be found reading best sellers and playing video games. They pack Yodels in their picnic lunches and they learn their pop-psychology from watching Phil Donahue.
This is the Old South, fast becoming the New South, and Mason's characters are just trying not to get lost in the shuffle. They are parents trying to come to terms with their children's modern-day whims: divorce, graduate school and vegetarianism. And they are children who treasure what their parents cast aside: run-down farms and faded family snapshots. Bobbie Ann Mason sorts skillfully through the jumble of these two cultures. Most often, she has a keen eye for just what to treasure and what to throw away. The small details in stories like "Shiloh" and "The Ocean" seem to glimmer more brightly with each re-reading. And the sequential stories, "Nancy Culpepper" and "Lying Doggo," are pieced together as delicately and effectively as a bit of country patchwork.
In any collection, no matter how polished, there are always a few dull spots to be found, and this book is no exception. A couple of the stories, "The Rookers," and "Old Things," have promising starts and clunky, disappointing endings. And, here and there throughout the stories, Mason has overdone the country talk. Just one too many colloquialism -- "I declare," or "Great day in the morning!" or "Don't do me that way" -- can tip the balance of the story down dangerously close to parody.
For the most part, however, the solid material here far outweighs the flimsy. Like Bill in his deluxe camper, Bobbie Ann Mason has a vision and she makes us see it too -- it is a glimpse straight into the heart of her characters' lives. It makes for fine reading, I do declare.