Getting a short story off the ground and safely landed again in its few allotted pages is a risk. In a collection of stories, the risk is multiplied, like an airplane flight that includes many stops: There are just that many more chances for failure. It's a rare collection that delivers its passenger smoothly from first page to last without a few hard landings.
Lee Smith's new book of stories, "Me and My Baby View the Eclipse," comes close. There are occasional patches of bumpy air, but like her novels, it is piloted by a clear voice and a secure knowledge of its territory.
That territory is Alabama, the Carolinas, West Virginia: the small Southern towns that deeply nurture and profoundly confine. Neighbors bring over casseroles after an operation or a divorce; women guard their reputations; men who wear Hawaiian shirts are presumed gay. Smith's most appealing and tragic characters are those who have broken out of the mold but still know that as long as they live in the towns that saw them through childhood, they can't really be free.
In "Intensive Care," red-haired Cherry Oxendine, a former high school wild card now facing mid-life and breast cancer, tells her daughter: "When you get too old to be cute, honey, you get to be eccentric." But even so, Harold Stikes loves her intensely. For Cherry, he abandoned his carefully planned house and family and prim wife who characterized their marriage, in a magazine quiz, as "an average love." The town can't feel sorry for Harold now as he watches Cherry die. But Harold believes Cherry's love has briefly, wondrously lifted him up out of the ordinary, like one of those rare folk who've had a close encounter with a UFO.
Most of these stories, in fact, are about love slightly out of control: It disregards beauty-parlor gossip; it leaves a path of kids in its wake; it is as splendid as it is impossible. In "Bob, a Dog," an abandoned wife devotes slavish energy to confining an adopted dog, while the dog shows just as much determination to run free.
In the poignant title story, Sharon, a solid wife and mother, has an affair with a flamboyant younger man. Raymond was ostracized in his youth for wearing high-water pants, but grew up to cultivate fashion sense with a vengeance; now he helps women pick out wedding announcements and drapes. Sharon finally opts to preserve her family, but her moment in the bright, exotic beam of Raymond's attention allows her to view herself as beautiful.
The exceptional story in the collection is its long centerpiece, "Tongues of Fire," a Faulkneresque memoir of a girlhood in a proper, disintegrating Alabama family. While Karen's father has a nervous breakdown, her mother Dee Rose practices her two specialties, which are "Rising to the Occasion" and "Rising Above It All." Dee Rose energetically keeps up appearances, wearing spectator pumps and organizing luncheons, but Karen longs to be chosen by God for some higher, possibly fatal purpose.
Dee Rose has made clear the social ranking of churches: "Methodist at the top, attended by doctors and lawyers . . . Presbyterian slightly down the scale, attended by store owners. . . . And then, of course, at the very bottom of the church scale were those little churches out in the surrounding county . . . where people were reputed to yell out, fall down in fits, and throw their babies." Karen befriends a coarse country girl, accompanies her to the Maranatha Apostolic Church, throws herself on Christ's bosom and is baptized twice in two weeks. It's a comic, heartbreaking exploration of the self-destructive obsessions that sometimes keep children intact when all else fails.
From its wonderful title to its final sentence, this book brims with the poetry of the South, a language whose forte is the understated value judgment. In "Life on the Moon," an exasperated wife sums up her husband: "You can subscribe to the National Geographic for 10 years straight, but there are some people who won't do a thing but look at the naked pictures." And the narrator in "Mom" fondly recalls a trip with her son: "One time (we) both got sick on the pirate ship after eating some kind of weird food cooked by people from a foreign land. The state fair is full of culture, you'd be surprised."
Occasionally the writing lapses: Some important factor, such as a child, will be introduced too late in a story; a lover who had "beautiful big brown eyes" on Page 26 has acquired eyes "as blue as the sky" on Page 31.
The book is also rather short (I wonder these days if books are going the mysterious shrinking way of the 50-cent chocolate bar).
Selfishly, I wish the author had taken a little more time with it and given us a few more stories. But those that are here provide a rewarding passage.