Annabel Thomas is a writer of skill, insight and restraint. In these 16 short stories she describes, in a prose notable for its clarity and lack of excess, aspects of life in a rural section of what seems to be Ohio, where she lives. She has an affinity for the grotesque; many of her characters are slightly off-center, out of touch, off in their own worlds. Yet like other gifted writers who frequently employ the grotesque -- Flannery O'Connor, Doris Betts, Harry Crews -- she finds universal themes in their odd, seemingly twisted lives.
For these stories Thomas received the 1981 Award in Short Fiction given by the University of Iowa's writing school in conjunction with the Iowa Arts Council. Along with a prize of $1,000, the award carries a guarantee that the winning stories will be published by the University of Iowa Press. Thus in a small but valuable way the program helps keep alive the art of serious short fiction.
It's worth noting, as an aside, that all 16 of these stories originally appeared in little magazines and literary quarterlies: Four Quarters, Green River Review, Epoch, Prairie Schooner and others. The slick-magazine market for short fiction has almost completely disappeared, and the smaller journals have moved to fill the void. Contrary to the gloomy critics of the book business, the efforts of these publications do not go unnoticed; the process of gaining literary recognition may have been changed by economic and cultural realities, but it continues.
The recognition that Annabel Thomas has achieved with this award is well deserved. Her work is surprisingly original, considering that this is her first book, and at its best it is quite powerful. She is haunted by death and a number of the stories have violent climaxes, yet this is not a gloomy book. Thomas can be whimsical and tender, as in this extended passage from a lovely story called "Luther," about a husband and wife awaiting the birth of their first child:
"The pains took her suddenly so that she cried out. He started to his feet.
"Surely she ought to be making more progress. Mayhap the child was too big. Or else she wasn't working at the business properly but helter-skelter as she did everything.
" 'Look here,' he said, 'you must use the pains to bring things along. You must push with them, you see.'
" 'Say, Jack,' she said, 'just you climb in bed here and do it as it should be done and I'll slip out and have a puff at your pipe and rest a bit.'
"He felt his face go red so that his earlobes burned. She could always mortify him. Here she'd cut him down to an inch high, in labor though she was.
"He frowned and began scraping at his pipe bowl with the blade of his pocket knife. When he looked up, the bed was shaking so he thought she was taken bad again, but then he saw she was laughing.
"Laughing! Her cheeks were all rosy and her eyes squinted up, looking at him.
"He sat staring at her, scratching his head in wonderment, while the old tenderness for her came up in him so strong and so unexpectedly it nearly choked his breath."
I quote that passage at length because it is a fine example of Thomas' prose style, of the subtlety with which she unravels complex emotions -- and because reading it gives me pleasure. Even in those few short paragraphs, the characters of the husband and wife emerge with impressive clarity: the husband stolid and awkward, the wife amused and irreverent. Thomas can do a lot with a little.
Just about all of Thomas' people are as real as these two: a woman trapped underground in caves, in the title story: a crazed woman with visions of horses; two sisters living with a hateful aunt; an old woman in the house of her edgy, pushy daughter; an elderly brother and sister preparing to sell the family farm; a boy and girl coming to the end of puppy love. Over all of them looms a sense of foreboding. A man speaks to his wife about their young daughter:
"But you shelter Margaret too much. You do too much for her. You don't let her learn to do for herself, for you and for other folks as well. You must let her alone to sorrow or laugh as it comes to her. You protect her overly, I think, Jane. You teach her about life but you hide away death. She should know both as they're threads of the same cloth. She must learn to live with dying all around her, you know. That's how we all must learn to live."
Of course, something terrible happens; too often Thomas foreshadows her violent climaxes, so that they become predictable and therefore less forceful. But this does not diminish the truth of the father's words, which contain a central theme of these stories: the inevitability and naturalness of death. It is a theme that Thomas explores with compassion and an agreeable wit. She's a writer to be reckoned with.