Rosanne Cash writes and plants high hopes

March 17, 1996|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,special to the sun

"Bodies of Water," by Rosanne Cash. Hyperion. 133 pages. $19.95 The first story in Rosanne Cash's first book appropriately narrates a beginning - the birth of a baby girl, and what feels to the mother like her own spiritual rebirth. The book itself is a kind of rebirth too, marking the luminous arrival of its music-star author on the literary scene.

The recent Joan Collins court shenanigans in New York highlighted the problem with the typical celebrity-authored book: it is less a book than a generic paper product that draws all its appeal from the famous name tacked onto it.

"Bodies of Water" transcends this sorry glitter-lit genre to take its place among genuine fiction. Serious readers should take notice. It is of course not uninteresting that these lovely stories were written by a woman who is the daughter of Johnny Cash and a major country rock star in her own right. But the best reasons to read it are inside the book, not in the name imprinted on its jacket.

"Bodies of Water" is a slim and elegant volume; its nine stories don't take up very much space, yet they weigh in as rich interior portraits. Ms. Cash explores small epiphanies, indelible moments that unexpectedly clarify some contested region of a character's emotional life.

A young woman spills a glass of red wine in a Greenwich Village bistro; a Paris tourist runs into an ancient beggar a second time; a young mother cries watching her small daughter learn how to float.

Ms. Cash shows how these seemingly mundane moments in her characters' lives become unexpected points of illumination, like the hidden stars in "Dinner": "You could never see the stars in the city, but I knew they were there, behind the dark and the chill and the artificial glow of streetlights."

Fleeting instants can resound in Ms. Cash's stories because she so deftly sketches the untidy lives in which they will reveal and redeem instead of passing by unnoticed. These are the lives of women of a particular sensibility: self-searching, perceptive, prone to feeling isolated, prone to feeling too much. The older ones hold on hard to their weathered romanticism.

The voices telling these stories are alike enough to tempt us to read these nine lives as nine studies of a single life (and to plant high hopes for Ms. Cash's first novel). The narrator of the opening story, "We Are Born," becomes a prototype for the personalities that follow.

At 11, she discovers her difference and begins to nurture it: "I created a charming and dynamic personality to make the necessary forays into the Outside, and I kept my strangeness for myself; my own peculiar jewels under lock and key."

For all of the narrators, this sense of their own peculiarity turns out to be both what they fight against in life, and what they fight with; it paradoxically isolates them and draws others to them, debilitates and empowers.

At their best, Rosanne Cash's quiet but wide-awake stories attain an understated poetry. Attentive to the heart, the mind, and the ear alike, they are artful enough to feel casual, so that reading them is as effortless and pleasurable as talking over coffee with a favorite friend. It may only be when we find ourselves back at page one, beginning again, that we recognize them as the peculiarly stirring literary jewels that they are.

Laura Demanski works at the University of Chicago Press. She is also pursuing a doctorate in 19th century English literature at the University of Chicago. Before that, she worked for Simon & Schuster.

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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