To hear Pat Conroy tell it, Mary Hood may be the best thing to happen to Georgia since air conditioning.
Conroy’s fawning forewords have become almost standard in the handful of titles he’s selected for publication by Story River Books, a series of Southern fiction from the University of South Carolina Press.
But those previous overtures feel like footnotes compared to the “hymn of praise” that prefaces Hood’s new story collection. Conroy calls the 69-year-old author, whose 1984 debut, “How Far She Went,” won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, “one of the great writers of our time,” ranking her among the very best “to grow up in the sunshine and dark winds of Georgia.”
For the most part, this collection’s 10 tales live up to the acclaim. These crafty, volatile stories keep our eyes, tongues and toes grounded in modern lives seldom fleshed out in popular culture. The author, who lives in Commerce, writes with calm authority about small-town women struggling to stay afloat (sometimes literally) in an unstable Southern wasteland.
Whether they’re seamstresses or teachers, truck drivers or prison guards, Hood’s heroines refuse to see themselves as damsels in distress. They buy sneakers at Dollar General and leave their pumps hanging on boyfriends’ gun racks. Their own guns are hidden elsewhere, and they aren’t afraid to use them.
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Hood wastes precious little ink on long-winded dialogue or ornamental scene-setting, yet creates fully realized situations both commonplace and peculiar: judgmental parents, proselytizing neighbors, downsized and dehumanized workers. Though the cast is diverse, the major players tend to be working-class women who bear a distinctive Southern obstinacy.
The fast-paced “Mad Woman in the Attic” breaks the mold slightly; the strongest and most riveting piece in the collection pits middle class characters against their blue collar neighbors. Hood begins the story with one of Flannery’s favorite shticks: wry, redneck ribbing. “RoyBoy’s almost fiancée, Connie, was getting her tattoos laser-removed instead of going to the beach. … Treatments would kill all of Connie’s summer, just about. No tanning.”
The first third of the story unfolds as a jaunty farce of social class. Connie would do anything to marry RoyBoy, a sheriff’s deputy and not her first “almost fiancée.” But Eleanor, RoyBoy’s strong-willed, skeet-shooting mother, recoils at Connie’s “mill-village twang that called salad ‘sellid,’ and daddy ‘deddy.’” Comic friction escalates but is interrupted by an act of God: the flood of the century. The focus switches to Eleanor’s desperate efforts to survive as rising waters consume her home. The divorcée grabs her shotgun and a bottle of vodka, zips her toy terrier into a bag and heads for the attic. The climb forces her to reevaluate the material worth of an already ruined life.
This notion of taking inventory and reassessing priorities informs almost all of the stories in “Southern Sky.” Another standout, “The Teacher,” states a variation on the theme: “There’s gone and there’s lost.” The line, as elusive as a Zen koan, applies at first to a missing set of car keys, then takes on new meaning as the main character becomes obsessed with locating a senile Holocaust survivor. Spanning years, the story limps along to a baffling conclusion, which may speak to the slippery nature of its subject.
“Gone” is the plaintive, somewhat gruff interjection used as “good-bye” in “Come and Go Blues.” One of the book’s shorter pieces and definitely the funniest, this perky romance follows the rushed matrimony of a long-haul trucker with a short-order cook. Tomboyish Jean has been driving big rigs for more than a decade when Gene slips her a note written on the back of a check carbon. “She read it like it was a trick, or a test. Or the Bible.” A year later, they’re getting hitched in Macon, but questions remain about what awaits the free-spirited Jean down the road.
Hood tinkers with the chronology of “Blues” but manages the scrambled structure with ease. She handles similar time jumps well in “Witnessing” (an incisive little parable about hypocrisy) but not as well in the unwieldy title story. There’s plenty to admire about the chilling premise: Yara, a poultry plant worker, decides to assassinate a serial killer she’s seen on television. The narrative hops between her careful planning of the crime and later frustrations taking an English as a Second Language class in prison. Hood breaks the action up into bite-sized assignments from the English worksheets, but the jumble becomes a fumble as we lose track of the protagonist.
The ambitious but problematic story’s placement at the start of the book is a shame; it’s a poor representation of the pleasures in store. By the end of “Seam Busters,” the closing novella, it’s mighty hard to disagree with the foreword’s argument that Hood is a treasure who’s writing at the top of her form. While the foreword lifts the author up to the heavens, the stories in “A Clear View of the Southern Sky” do the opposite. Even among graveyard-shift cooks and sewing plant workers, Hood happily knocks mere mortals down off the smallest of pedestals. The effect is cathartic, enthralling and often devastating for her characters — and the rest of us earthlings.