Frank Manley, a professor of English at Emory University and the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships, creates a remarkable world in this fine collection of short stories. All of his characters share a common denominator: They inhabit and are inhibited by worlds from which they try desperately to flee.
Manley takes us into small spaces, indwelling and claustrophobic, where events spin out of control in a matter of seconds. In "Within the Ribbons," the title story, Daisy Feed, who had spent her life caring for her recently deceased mother, confesses to her friend that she has never been to a wedding. Her friend, Amelia Thorlew, a study of easy alarm and good intentions, replies, "I go to a wedding once a year. Sometimes twice. And sometimes it just comes in bunches. I don't even get back home and take my bicarbonate of soda sometimes when here comes another and I got to get sick all over again."
So Daisy accompanies Amelia to the next wedding and Manley, in detailing the surreal aspects of the event, draws us into Daisy's inner core.
She gets to sit within the ribbons--the church pews reserved for family members--but spiritually and physically, she remains on the periphery, longing to connect. Yet when the bride tosses the bouquet, she steps back. " 'Why didn't you get it?' Amelia asked, trying to kick it with her foot. The bridesmaids were still screaming and scrabbling. 'You could have got it. She aimed it at you.'
" 'I didn't want it,' Daisy Feed said. 'I wouldn't know what to do with it.' "
The wedding is a rich, vulgar and graceless affair that Manley describes in trenchant language: " 'Wait a minute.' The young men rushed up. 'Look here,' one of them said. He held out a plate of shrimp.' "
"How do you eat it?"
"With a fork."
"There aren't any."
"Daisy Feed looked at the plate, then at the table. There was nothing to eat the shrimp with. 'I don't know,' Daisy Feed said.
" 'That's what I mean,' the young man said.' 'They got it fixed where you can't eat it.'
" 'Hey, try a toothpick,' one said.
" 'Look how I do,' the other one said, and he opened one of the sandwiches and with a piece of bread dug at the pile of shrimp on his plate as though he was mopping it up with a towel. Then he thrust it in his mouth. Most of it got in. The rest rolled down the front of his suit onto the floor. 'Goddamn,' one said. 'Son of a bitch,' said the other. They both stopped to clean it up, and Daisy Feed left."
Amid this confusion, Daisy glimpses an ephemeral figure, more shadow than man, who slips in and out of her line of vision. At first, she imagines he is a thief, then she realizes that she alone sees him and she alone knows that his presence portends fulfillment and disaster of horrifying proportions.
In "A Joy Forever," the characters are finely drawn against a background richly detailed to illuminate the dynamics of small town corruption and the casual cruelty hidden behind a curtain of soft Southern gentility.
Mattie Chadwick, a spinster buoyed by a new interpretation of Scripture, is moved to fight the powers who have closed a rural road, a road to the past that must remain open. "That road goes back to the beginning of time . . . I go down there, and the rocks are the same, and the trees are the same, and the river, it's still the same and it's like I step back. It's important to me. I can't live just here. Living here without that road opens like plants living without their roots. They shrivel up and die in a day."
Manley pulls us along, almost submerging us in a subterranean current of sexuality as Mattie tries to enlist the help of her neighbors--the pistol-packing Widow Grizzle and her three daughters. Her quixotic crusade is nearly sidetracked by the women's intense preoccupation with the thought and threat of rape; their obsessive attempts to define and describe, within the limits of their experience, aggravated sodomy.
Mattie then describes her encounter with the commissioner of roads: "It's like he was violating me. One time they robbed me when I wasn't there. My momma and daddy just died the year before, and I was out down at the river. It was still light, and I got back just before supper, and the door was standing open. It was the fall, and it was cold. When I saw it open, I knew something was wrong, and I crept up and looked in the windows. It's like somebody lifted my skirt. 'Oh, God,' Althie said. She clutched her hands.
Mattie continues: " . . . and it was like they did something to me--lifted my skirt and did what they do, and I couldn't stop them. That's how I feel about that road--if I let them, that's what they'd do."
Mattie lets the commissioner know that she intends to fight. To the threat implicit in his response, she replies, "That's why I'm doing it, Benny. I don't care if I die, anyway. I figure I'm a joy forever."