JACK MATTHEWS dedicates his latest collection of short stories to "all those who will understand how negotiable and variously ironic the title is." This is as much a challenge as a dedication. Throughout the book, the reader tries to fit that "negotiable" phrase, "crazy women," to the characters. Some are going crazy, some are half-crazy, and others are just plain crazy. Though Matthews ultimately creates more intrigue than his characters satisfy, he has presented a logically bizarre world, where characters drown cats, dangle from trap doors, and claw their way out of their coffins.
Structurally, the whole collection is nicely linked. Chapter titles borrow phrases or themes from preceding chapters. These titles are as intriguing as the dedication, from "A Marriage of Solipsists" to "Irrelevant Ideas." His characters, too, migrate from story to story. Seeing the same names in different places illustrates how Matthews' themes also travel, fastening themselves to different characters in different settings.
Take, for example, "The Two of Them Together" and "The Grave at Mt. Nebo." In both, a grandparent indirectly helps a recalcitrant grandchild past a roadmark of maturity. In the first, young Luke first encounters his mother, the anxious, tearful crazy woman of this story, waiting to tell him that his estranged grandfather is not only in town but is coming for supper. As expected, he turns out to be an unpleasant old man, but Luke takes a walk with him and comes back with a lesson learned.
In "The Grave at Mt. Nebo," "Gramaw" is a Central Casting crazy, rocking, nodding and talking, a woman who "need(s) wine at every meal for her digestion." She wants to visit Mt. Nebo cemetery and her granddaughter, Judith Ann, is the designated chauffeur. At Mt. Nebo, young Judith Ann sees something that "drain(s) most of the silliness out of her, for a while, giving her an idea of how strong and serious she might be in what is after all a mysterious world. It also gave her something else, which has no name, but is one of the things that made her life into something more of an abstraction . . . almost as if she were destined to understand more, because this was her second time." The story illustrates that "something else" better than "The Two of Them Together" because there is more affection between the characters, more to make the reader care about the characters' discoveries.
In "Harry the Woman Killer," Harry's relationship to his mother is Luke's grown up. A typically harmless, though clever, conversation between the two takes place during the mother's dying days:
"'Wherever did you learn to speak to your own mother that wa Not from me, you didn't learn such derespectful language to your mother.'
"'There's no such word as "derespectful,'" he said.
"'Now isn't that a fine thing,' she said with a bitter smile, 'correcting the language of your mother, who was speaking well long before you were ever born!'
"'There's no such word. I can't help it. There just isn't.'
"'Here I am dying and you disagree with me on my deathbed.'
"Harry pedaled rapidly into the living room and got the unabridged dictionary. . ." In this story, as in some of the others, the men are more complicated centerpieces whose development we follow while the women's personalities remain, unfortunately, one-dimensional and static by comparison.
TWO THIRDS of the way through Crazy Women, "The Sound of a Girl Singing" completely clarifies Matthews' logic. It has a wonderfully intriguing opening: "I died near the end of my fifth year, and my father, whisperng to himself, laid me gently in a small satin- covered box." That was in 1811; now she tells of how she burst up from her coffin and through the earth, to discover that: "The real world in which I had been buried right now seems even more ghostly than this wrong one. Sometimes a lunatic will understand such a truth in this way." It is the "crazies," from rocking Gramaw to the 5-year-old clawing her way through the coffin, who understand how close real worlds can be and how, in Yeats' words, "memories are old identities." The little girl tells how, once buried, she began "to dream myself into the dreams of other people," and it is precisely here that we realize what has been happening throughout the book. Those crazy women and their spirits have been insinuating themselves into the consciousness of their fellow characters, infecting them with memory.
Matthews' opening sentences are mostly irresistible: "Well, the first thing you're going to have trouble believing is Birdie Braine herself," and his images are inventive. Pipe smoke floats "like poisonous gas in a horror movie above her head"; a glass of rose is like "a lighted Fourth of July sparkler"; a particularly dreadful thought is "worse than death by rat bite." But they are scattered and only whet the appetite for more. The lack of environmental details is frustrating, though this may be Matthews' way of making us look at the migratory themes and characters rather than focusing on time and place. We are teased with their "craziness," but not enough of the characters walk off the pages and into life.
Yet these strange women, from Birdie Braine to Gramaw, linger after the book is closed and the dedication forgotten, insinuating themselves, quietly, into the reader's dreams as they have insinuated themselves into each others'.