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Book Review : Stories Steeped in Southern Sensibility

September 16, 1988|ELAINE KENDALL

Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories by Elizabeth Spencer (Viking: $15.95; 184 pages)

Though only two of these five memorable stories are explicitly Southern in setting, character or mood, a recognizably Southern sensibility pervades even the three placed in Canada and New York. Elizabeth Spencer's particular sense of place emerges as a special attention to idiosyncratic idiom, an intense awareness of social distinctions, and a passionate concern with family ties--a literary attitude that can exist without a shred of Spanish moss or a single black-eyed pea.

In fact, "Jean Pierre," ostensibly about the marriage of a 20-year-old English-Canadian girl to a French-Canadian twice her age could almost be a story of miscegenation in Alabama; the ethnic tensions equally acute, the effect of the assumed misalliance upon family, friends and the principals themselves just as profound. No matter that Callie and Jean Pierre are happy; according to the prevailing wisdom, they shouldn't be.

In "The Skater," a middle-aged Montreal matron neatly manages a satisfying double life until a desperate and pathetic young man jeopardizes the careful structure she's created and threatens the precarious equilibrium of her outwardly conventional life. "Jack of Diamonds" takes place in Lake George, N. Y. 1,000 cultural and geographical miles from magnolia country. In this complex and subtle story, a 17-year-old girl is sent to reopen the family's summer house, unused during the three years since her mother's death and her father's remarriage. Alone there for the first time, she discovers incontrovertible evidence that forces her to see her adored father in a harsh new light. Spare and economical, the story generates a power far out of proportion to its modest length; a coming-of-age novel condensed to its essence.

A Delicate Balance

The two Southern stories, "The Cousins" and "The Business Venture," show Spencer's technique to particular advantage. In "The Cousins," she explores the delicate balance of kinship, romance and friendship among young people on a summer holiday in Italy. On one level, the story is a glowing reminiscence of a magical summer abroad just after World War II recounted by one of the participants, now a 49-year-old widow. Her curiosity aroused by another cousin who tells her "I always thought in some way I can't pin down--it was your fault we lost Eric," the narrator revisits Florence to discover how and why Eric chose to settle in Europe instead of returning home with the rest of the group.

Though "A Business Venture" actually happens a decade ago, this story about an impossible partnership between a young white woman and a black Vietnam veteran has a poignantly timeless quality. Even if this small Mississippi town has gained a Cineplex and a mall and lost a block or two of downtown stores, the ingrained attitudes will be unchanged; the old taboos in force. In their 30s, the young married couples will still be spending weekends with their high school classmates; flirting, drinking too much, avoiding even talking about "the Negro Question" because "We couldn't jump out of our own skins, or those of our parents, grandparents, and those before them."

The Lasting Power of Place

Though some of Spencer's characters eventually succeed in doing exactly that, it's the conflict that gives these stories their energy. For her less ambitious and intrepid people, geography, like biology, will often be destiny. In all cases, it's the enduring power of place to shape lives that supplies these stories with their internal momentum; Spencer's uncanny understanding of the relationship between place and personality that lends them distinction.

Just off the monotonous freeways and beyond the tacky strip shopping centers, individuality still thrives, revealed and celebrated by a writer whose vision penetrates the blanket of homogeneity that blurs the American landscape.

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