Pieces of woman's life come together in uneven collection

Review Novel in stories

July 23, 2006|By IRENE WANNER

Nancy Culpepper: Stories

Bobbie Ann Mason

Random House / 228 pages / $22.95

Bobbie Ann Mason's books have won numerous awards; her memoir, Clear Springs, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Nancy Culpepper brings Mason's total number of books published to an impressive baker's dozen. The dust jacket describes this book as a "definitive collection"; these linked stories join together several very old published pieces, and some more recent, involving the same characters. The outcome is a quilt of words whose handwork is quite uneven - sometimes marvelous, sometimes mystifying.

It's easy to see the appeal of linked stories, sometimes called a novel in stories. With a book of related pieces, Mason can cover in depth only those people and events that most interest her. She has license to skip much of the background and bridging narrative expected in a novel. Mason creates a single cast, then calls these players to her stage as needed without having to dream up the dozen worlds and dozens of biographies for a short fiction collection's usual dozen or so separate pieces.

In economy and focus, any novel in stories forces readers to fill in and/or forgive some blanks. Since it's not quite what we're used to, it can be unsatisfying.

Only two of the seven pieces are new. The title story appeared in a 1980 issue of The New Yorker. Like Mason, Nancy grew up in rural Kentucky, took the big step to go east to university and married in the 1960s. Nancy's husband, Jack Cleveland, is a photographer. They live near Philadelphia with their son, Robert, age 8.

Nancy has always felt out of place on the Eastern seaboard. Her ties to the family farm back home, its working-class ethic and borderline poverty remain so strong, she's asked Jack to consider moving, especially now that her 93-year-old grandmother is being displaced to a nursing facility. For her parents, this move marks not only the first time in nine years they won't be providing senior care, but also the first time in their roughly 40-year marriage when they are truly on their own.

"Blue Country" moves ahead a year. Granny has died, Nancy learns on a trip with Jack to the Maine coast to attend a wedding. Encountering difficulties booking a last-minute flight to Kentucky, Nancy lets Jack talk her into staying. They go whale watching, and Mason brings to life the magic of this extraordinary encounter.

"Lying Doggo" was published in her first collection, Shiloh and Other Stories (1982). Jack's old mutt, Grover, has become so arthritic that he needs help going outside. No one can bear the idea of euthanasia yet, but reaching a decision provides opportunities to reflect on change.

"Spence + Lila" comprises more than 100 pages; originally released as a novel but called a novella on this book's dust jacket, it focuses on Nancy's parents. Reviewers praised Mason's perfect pitch for dialogue, humor and grasp of the working class, but found the book sketchy. Those descriptions remain accurate, yet because Nancy figures so slightly in such a long section, the focus blurs.

Nine years later, Nancy is in London in "Proper Gypsies." She's separated from Jack (readers must guess why); Robert's in college. Not only are there big gaps, but this story is also the lone first-person narrative, a bit of a misfit that reflects little personality in its voice.

The two new pieces are "The Heirs," which begins in 2002 but flashes back to relatives' lives in 1928, and "The Prelude," set in 2005, when Nancy and Jack meet in England's Lake District to reconcile.

What led them to get back together is unstated, but an ongoing theme suggests a cause for their problems: "Kentucky," Nancy realizes, "wouldn't release her." One paragraph in this final, sweet story provides a possible plot summary for a traditional novel: Nancy's cultural-identity struggle and unsuccessful attempts to adapt to her itinerant life. Readers will find much to savor in this book, but may wish that in addition to more new writing and more answers to omissions, these tantalizing 100 words or so had been the seed that did, indeed, make Nancy Culpepper definitive.

Irene Wanner wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times. She will teach a travel writing class at Portland State University's Haystack Summer Program in the Arts this month.

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