“Acts of God” brings to a round dozen the number of short-story collections Ellen Gilchrist has published since her first, “In the Land of Dreamy Dreams,” in 1981. Admirers of her work, among whom I am most certainly to be counted, will find much herein that is familiar and pleasing: a brief appearance by the bawdy and outspoken Rhoda Manning, who has been Gilchrist’s fictional alter ego for years; longer appearances by several variations on “upper-middle-class white protestant princesses,” one of whom, Rivers Royals from Jackson, Miss., is truly a classic of the breed; vivid evocations of the Mississippi Delta, where Gilchrist grew up, and of Little Rock; strong women as well as flighty ones, women who take charge of their own lives and put the men around them to shame.
The best story in “Acts of God” is one of the two longest. “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” is set mostly at Heathrow airport outside London, where three former Vanderbilt sorority sisters, now in their mid-30s, are trapped en route to Italy because terrorists have shut down the airport. The narrator, Louise, is a self-supporting maker of “documentary films for the Public Broadcasting Services,” while her friends Cynthia and Mary Jane are married to wealthy men, one of whom has bankrolled the entire first-class trip, including an elegant villa “outside the small town of Vorno, which is seven miles from the ancient walled city of Lucca.”
When they land at Heathrow, all is happy — “It was exactly like the old days at the Tri-Delt house at Vanderbilt” — but soon “the airport was locked down and nobody was going anywhere, not even out of the first-class lounge.” They are joined by the aforementioned Rivers Royals, who is “on my way to Florence to borrow paintings for our museum” in Jackson. She has a wealthy husband and is at liberty to be Lady Bountiful, albeit one with an agreeable self-deprecating streak. “I’m not interesting,” she says. “I’m a cliché inside a self-fulfilling prophecy inside a stereotype.” When security agents insist on opening her bag, she gets her dander up — “Rivers . . . was definitely turning into the star of the show,” Louise thinks. “A sleeper charismatic” — but after calming down, Rivers sympathetically calls the agents “flak catchers” and says:
“Having to deal with people like us who are accustomed to bossing people around, I get the feeling lately that most of my conversations are with people who work for me in one way or the other. I have two houses, and a lodge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I spend half my time talking to housekeepers, plumbers, roofers, painters, drapery hangers, window-blind installers, lawyers, or certified public accountants. I like them. I like people who work better than I like people like myself, which is why I do volunteer work. It’s better than not working at all, which is the most boring thing in the world and why old people become morose. Still, I long for conversation with people who don’t want anything from me. Like this. I feel fortunate to have run into all of you, even if it took a bomb scare to set it up.”
For these four women, as for most of the people in the other nine stories in this book, a crisis turns out to be not a defeat but a victory, a chance to find resources in themselves that they hadn’t suspected. Two stories deal with women confronted by natural disaster. In “Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas,” 16-year-old Marie James joins a group of friends trying to help victims of a tornado that has destroyed a small town. They find a baby that had been presumed lost, and the sense of accomplishment this gives Marie suggests that in the future her life will take more productive turns than seemed likely before then. In “Collateral,” a young college teacher goes to New Orleans with a team of National Guard first responders to help out in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: “She had never gone down [from a helicopter] to pick up a wounded or helpless human being, but she had picked up plenty of her fellow first responders who were pretending to be helpless or wounded and she knew she was ready.” A 10-year-old girl is the first she saves and the one whose memory stays longest with her, a memory that puts her, too, on the path to unexpected dividends.
Gilchrist has always had, for all her dry wit and inner toughness, a weakness for epiphanies, and there are more than a few of them here: “The human race. You have to love it and wish it well and not preach or think you have any reasons to think you are better than anyone else. Amen. Good-bye. Peace.” Or: “How wonderful and strange the world is even in the midst of disorder and the threat of disaster, which is probably the main thing the human race has been in the midst of since we first began as scared little lemurs.” Or: “She squeezed my hand and we went back to writing on our postcards and eating croissants and being here, glad to be alive in the only world there is, alive and eating and still breathing and not afraid really of anything that might happen next. We were Americans, for God’s sake, we weren’t in the habit of being afraid.”
A little of that goes a long way with me, but it does express in rather sentimental terms Gilchrist’s conviction that human beings are strong and resourceful enough to find profit in adversity. It’s the central theme of these stories, and Gilchrist has earned the right to say it as she wishes. Her characters are entirely believable, and so are the situations into which she places them. I confess to having been impatient with Rhoda Manning from time to time over the years, because it seems to me Gilchrist has a tendency to fall back on her too readily, but in the brief and very funny story “The Dogs,” Rhoda is at her sassiest best.
Rhoda is 67 now and has just acquired new neighbors, an obnoxious couple with a passel of even more obnoxious dogs. “I hate to complain,” she writes in a note to them, “but your dogs have been barking all afternoon for several weeks now and I can’t get any work done and can’t sleep.” The husband, a lawyer named Layton Morris Foster, replies: “We are making every effort to keep our dogs quiet but we can’t be expected to live our lives so that you can take two-hour naps in the afternoon. . . . I love my animals and will keep your letters in case anything unusual happens to them. I would take it very seriously if any harm came to them.” Rhoda properly regards this as a “threatening letter,” writes to her own attorney, and matters naturally escalate from there. It’s every neighbor’s nightmare, nicely brought to life in a few stinging pages.
To my taste Gilchrist is at her best when the wry and satirical mood strikes her, especially when she is pricking the balloons of pride that the white Southern upper middle class inflates in its own honor. Now in her late 70s, she has lost none of the zing that brought “In the Land of Dreamy Dreams” to such wholly unexpected attention, and it’s a pleasure to report that the best of the stories in “Acts of God” rank with the best in her first collection and in her second, “Victory Over Japan,” for which she was awarded a richly deserved National Book Award in 1984.
ACTS OF GOD Stories
By Ellen Gilchrist
Algonquin. 246 pp. $23.95