Leon, Texas, on the Leon River, is the county seat of a dry county where a substantial part of the population works hard at getting drunk. " 'Drink and vote dry!' is the unspoken slogan during all local option elections," reports Carolyn Osborn. "Mock furtiveness has become custom." Osborn is not only the skilled chronicler of Leon's curious life style; she invented this community. She also invented Pinto, a ghost town about 20 miles away, where a population of less than a dozen includes two hermits.
Osborn's inventions are rooted in carefully observed reality; reading her sharply etched little stories, you can tell that she has lived in Leon, walked among the crumbling buildings of Pinto, wondered at these curious landscapes and explored the souls of the natives -- thwarted people who never got away; a few, bruised by life, who escaped but finally had to come back.
There is John Hardeman, who used to be an Episcopal minister but was driven out by new realities: "folk-rock at the eleven o'clock service and day-glo paint sprayed on the walls. God is Dead in garish pink -- adolescent malice spewed on the walls of his church, and he could do nothing about it except retreat." He still does works of mercy, unwillingly but with determination, and even living in the middle of nowhere he can still be torn by the hardness and dishonesty he sees.
Kenyon, a solitary rancher, "was expelled from two high schools and wouldn't stay in college past the first semester . . . 'I can't stand sitting inside all that time. What good will it do me?' " He wouldn't put on a necktie, even for his wedding. After his death, a copy of Montaigne's "Essays" is found in his bedroom.
Maggie Ingram, 70 years old, married for spite and is haunted by a memory of her husband shooting her lover. He "never stood trial for it because the law in Texas said he had a right to kill a man in bed with his wife."
Osborn is not a native, and that gives her a curious advantage. Born in Nashville, she has lived in Texas since she was a schoolgirl 38 years ago. Her short stories about this special world embody the bifocal vision of one who has long been immersed in an environment but can bring to it the perspective of an outsider. She revels in the crankiness and eccentricity of the place and its people.
As she sees it, central Texas has a landscape like no other place: "Mesas stretch out like immense flat fingers and valleys lie between. You can see a long way, further than some people want to . . . My companions are armadillos, jackrabbits, wild turkeys, hawks, buzzards, who like to ride the air currents over the caverns, and deer." But people, not scenery, are her real subject; her Texas has the flavor of struggling souls colliding in darkness that one finds in Robert Frost's New England or the Middle America of Edgar Lee Masters.
Poets are the most apt comparison because her fiction, like most good short stories today, aspires to and often achieves the virtues of poetry. There is usually a plot of sorts: the discovery of a long-buried secret; an outburst of suppressed feelings; a stealthy act of greed or, just as often, spontaneous generosity, to give her inventions structure and climax. But the enduring interest is in the characters who move through her pages and her often virtuoso style.
Two of her stories -- the last two in the book, where she leaves the milieu of Leon and Pinto -- define some of the boundaries of that virtuosity. Nothing really happens in "Running Around America," a quietly eventful, superbly controlled stream of consciousness. Martha Adams simply takes her regular early-morning run through her suburban neighborhood outside of Austin, reflects on the lives of the neighbors whose homes she passes, and provides material for a dozen stories. Her mind also runs through themes evoked by the scenery she passes: wars, a mugging, a fire, a heart attack, Watergate and "the quiet anarchy of her own life."
In contrast, "Amnesia's Child" reads like the scenario for a television situation comedy: a mad scramble of incidents, an artful collage of cliche's. The plot involves a lovers' misunderstanding, hinging on a case of amnesia caused by a blow on the head. The story is full of eccentric characters and pointlessly witty dialogue; it could just as well have happened in California. This is a throwback to the magazine slick fiction of the pre-television age, beautifully done yet oddly anachronistic in the 1980s. It serves as a contrast to the other 11 stories, and its glib cleverness sends the reader back to their quiet depths with renewed appreciation.