BOSTON — Falling in love with a writer requires commitment; the long haul, thick and thin. They get old, you get old. The relationship waxes and wanes. Most readers can recall times of perfect synchronicity -- when the book was the necessary enzyme, the catalyst, the missing piece. "Black Tickets," Jayne Anne Phillips' first collection of stories, published in 1979, was, for more than one earnest English major, such a book.
Phillips came of writing age in the post-Vietnam era: Each of her deeply political books, including her latest, the novel "Lark and Termite" (Alfred A. Knopf: 260 pp., $24), set during the Korean War, has examined trickle-down violence in American culture.
"Black Tickets" was not a nice book: It was full of drugs, rape, murder, incest, poverty and pain. And, because Jayne Anne Phillips was and is a literary fiction writer, she knew, even then, how to bypass the reader's brain and inject her words into the bloodstream. This is what makes literary fiction so dangerous; it is a genre that requires a comprehensive understanding of the soul's vulnerability. It is by nature experimental because the author is partially judged on her ability to climb into a character's mind, like the drug dealer in the story "Black Tickets": "When you touch my flesh I slide out of it and wake up standing, propped by your arms, your knee, the cold tile wall. I feel the cloud still seeping from you and it dries on my hand, cracking to a pile of charcoal numbers; dim serial of odd and even, a catalog of fools." In those days, there weren't many such books written by women. Phillips gave the green light to writers like Susanna Moore ("In the Cut"), Kathryn Harrison and many, many others who came up through academia, through creative writing classes in which women didn't always, whether from shyness or fear of recrimination in a good-girl culture, tell it exactly like it was.
When "Black Tickets" was published, Phillips was praised to high heaven by Raymond Carver, John Irving, Annie Dillard, Tim O'Brien and many others. Nadine Gordimer called Phillips "the best short story writer since Eudora Welty." Sometimes praise like that can stop a young writer short in her tracks, but not Phillips. Her other work includes "Sweethearts" (1976), "Machine Dreams" (1984), "Fast Lanes" (1987), "Shelter" (1994), "MotherKind" (2000) and now, "Lark and Termite."
"It means a lot that writers support my work," Phillips says. We are sitting in her living room in a Boston suburb on a snowy December day. The house is a mustard-colored Victorian in a neighborhood of cafes and secondhand clothing stores. The kitchen is bright, clean and suspiciously quiet -- somewhere in the house Phillips' grown children are sleeping off Christmas. Two Siamese cats furl around the andirons of an unused fireplace. The world of "Black Tickets" is far, far away.
"Lark and Termite" moves between North Chungchong Province, South Korea, in 1950 and Winfield, W. Va., 1959. Cpl. Robert Leavitt, against all his better judgment and training, has saved a young Korean woman, her old mother and a young boy who is blind and deaf by dragging them into a tunnel to avoid the bullets from American airplanes strafing Korean refugees and their own troops. Back in Virginia, the love of his life, Lola, is about to give birth to their son, who will be nicknamed Termite because, as his half-sister, Lark, explains, "he's in himself like a termite's in a wall." Lark is Lola's child from some previous relationship: She has grown up with Lola's more responsible, God-fearing sister, Nonie. The novel is a masterpiece of sedimentary writing; layers so thin and fine you can see through them into the past or almost to the future. How does the writer do this?
"I heard the first line and followed the language into the book," Phillips says. "I started with Lark's voice and she told me what she didn't know." Phillips describes the sounds that echoed in her head as she began the book -- a train, the river, echoing in a tunnel.
Compelled by image
The novel also began with a strong image that Phillips had carried with her for three decades. "I was visiting a friend in Virginia, where I grew up. I looked out her window into an alley and saw a boy seated on a metal chair holding a blue strip from a dry cleaning bag. He sat there for hours." Yet another ingredient came in the form of the story of the massacre of hundreds of Korean civilians at No Gun Ri in 1950, reported by the Associated Press' Charles J. Hanley in 1999 (Hanley shared a Pulitzer with two colleagues for the story in 2000).