Jill McCorkle writes about Southern women

May 17, 1992|By Anne Whitehouse

CRASH DIET.

Jill McCorkle.

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

253 pages. $16.95. Admirers of Jill McCorkle's novels will find abundant evidence of her comic gifts in this first collection of 11 stories, featuring sharp-tongued female narrators at odds with their husbands, boyfriends, parents, children or friends. Her characters typically live in small towns in North Carolina or South Carolina, where they married right after high school, had children, found employment as bank tellers or supermarket checkout clerks, or else stayed home or worked in family businesses. They survive by deviousness, common sense and their caustic wits.

Their sense of self-sufficiency is hard-won and must constantly be defended. "I was desperately seeking once upon a time," Lucinda says in "Man Watcher." "I was unhappily married to a man who wanted me to be somebody I wasn't . . . Now where was my little sack of security then?"

"It's sad sometimes how life is distorted by comparisons: good-better-best, when really you were never up to good at all," says Norlina in "Comparison Shopping."

In the title story, Sandra, a formerly overweight woman who has dieted to thinness, nourishes fantasies of revenge and suffers a breakdown after her husband, Kenneth, leaves her for a younger, albeit heavier, woman. Recovering, she stops persecuting Kenneth and consents to a divorce, ignores her mother's nasty asides, and develops an attraction to her lawyer.

In "First Union Blues," Maureen Dummer, a single parent raising a daughter, comforts her cousin, Eleanore, in an unhappy affair with a married man. Meanwhile, Maureen realizes the deficiencies in her own relationship with Earl Taylor, whose careful, calculating personality is contrasted with that of Larry Cross, the drug-dealing delinquent who fathered her child.

"Waiting for Hard Times to End" and "Carnival Lights" demonstrate Ms. McCorkle's ability, already developed in her novels, to portray the lives of adolescents. In the first story, the narrator, Bunny, idolizes her absent older sister, Rhonda, much as Katie Burns worships her cousin, Angela, in Ms. McCorkle's novel, "Ferris Beach." Rhonda's frequent postcards to Bunny, which Bunny cherishes, concealing them from the rest of her hostile family, are comic, as are the descriptions of how Bunny's efforts backfire when she tries to put Rhonda's advice about "catching men" into action. Yet this ultimately is a sad and moving story, culminating in tragedy. Although Bunny eventually must acknowledge that Rhonda was deluded about her life, an authentic if limited love did exist between the two sisters.

"Carnival Lights," on the other hand, is a comedy wherein the narrator must choose between love and ambition. Lori Lawrence, a high school senior, is in love with Donnie Wilkins, the son of the school's two guidance counselors. They discourage Lori from attending college because she is female and poor, and because they don't want to be bothered with filling out the financial aid forms. Nor do they see Lori as a suitable girlfriend for their son. However, in this battle of wills, Lori is more than a match for them.

Ms. McCorkle's depictions of older women are less realized than her other characterizations. Primarily these women seem to be mourning what they have lost or are on the verge of losing. Anna Craven mourns her deceased husband in "Departures"; Alice misses her old home and her son, daughter-in-law and grandchild in Boston after her husband has uprooted her to a trailer park in Florida in "Migration of the Love Bugs." Mary, the only black character in these stories, regrets the imminent retirement of Bennie, her co-worker and only friend, from the university's maintenance staff in "Words Gone Bad."

Ms. McCorkle's prose is witty and descriptive. In the hilarious "Comparison Shopping," the narrator Norlina -- unpopular, plain and sensitive -- describes her relationship with her ex-lover, Byron. Even more of a misfit than herself, with "his ribs showing like xylophone keys through that grungy white skin," he appointed himself an unofficial forest ranger and took her to live in a pup tent in the woods. When they exchanged vows and "natural artifacts," Norlina recalls, "I gave him what he thought was an arrowhead but was really a man-made piece of costume jewelry I found in front of the freezer in Thriftway. I think it had been an earring before it got stepped on a lot."

Ms. McCorkle's characters arouse our sympathies. Facing disappointments and betrayals with willed toughness, they remain hopeful and irrepressible.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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