Literary newcomer Ashleigh Bryant Phillips scored big when her short story collection, “Sleepovers,” won a contest judged by Lauren Groff. It doesn’t hurt to have someone in your corner who has President Barack Obama in theirs, and the former POTUS is a known fan of Groff’s work — including her own collection of short stories, “Florida.”
It’s clear to see why Groff awarded Phillips the 2019 C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize, presented by Hub City Press to recognize emerging Southern writers. The book, while fiction, draws heavily on Phillips’ experience growing up in rural Woodland, North Carolina. Over the course of 23 stories, the reader comes to know an impoverished community where residents look out for each other through acts of spaghetti fundraisers, prayer lists and dads building wheelchair ramps for students.
Packing nearly two dozen stories into one book is ambitious, inviting the risk of some stories getting lost among the stronger ones. But the fast pace of the stories keeps the reader moving, as if an act of defiance toward an omnipresent thread that runs through the book: the sensation of feeling trapped in one’s environment.
That theme, foreshadowed in the book’s epigraph by Alan Watts, is evident in “The Country Woman.” The protagonist goes to college in the city where she gets a taste of “like-minded friends and cultural indulgences” like bahn mi sandwiches and hot yoga, only to have to return home “to her inherited destiny: the land.” She wards off loneliness by getting a dog and some pigs, seducing the wifi installation man and inviting the local grocery store checkout girl to move into the barn apartment. The ragtag group has cookouts beneath the stars, and the woman’s boredom is kept at bay. But one night the cops and an ambulance fly up the path, and just like that, the author masterfully slips between the bucolic and the depraved.
The things that trap the characters in “Sleepovers” vary. If not financial or geographical, it may be a toxic lover. Depending on the story, an older man might beat, harass, cheat, exploit, impregnate or leave a young woman with a distorted view of her self-worth. Sometimes the trap is drugs, or all of the above. In “Return to the Coondog Castle,” a wife throws her husband out after he sleeps with a teen girl. Everyone knows he has a problem with meth, so she offers them up that half-truth, “because ‘drugs’ is easier to say than ‘infidelity’ or ‘affair.’”
Most of the tales take place in modern day, but a couple hold the weight of passed-down memories that illustrate the staying power of a small town’s restricting factors such as limited access to healthcare. The protagonist of “Charlie Elliot,” set in 1960, wonders if he learns everything late because he was born wrong, or “because on the way home from the hospital there was a big storm and your daddy wrecked the car and your mama dropped you in the floorboard.” Charlie lives an isolated and angry life, until he meets a girl like him.
In “Lorene,” a teen girl can’t stop crying in the spring of 1958. The doctor recommends a change of scenery, so she escapes to her sister’s place in Rocky Mount. She’s still weepy, but “at least she won’t on the farm anymore still having to use an outhouse, walking to miles and miles of fields and nothing.” Phillips’ use of grammatical transgressions like “won’t” instead of “wasn’t” add to her command of the narrator’s voice.
Phillips weaves beauty into her sad stories in a poetic way that cuts to the truth. Even her bleakest stories contain an untainted moment to soften the despair. This quality shines brightest in her raw stories about fleeting friendships between young girls.
The title piece nails the spot-on excitement of that elementary school rite of passage, the slumber party. The narrator and her classmate might have had a lifelong friendship, but that possibility is cut short when her father loses his leg in a hog house mishap and the family moves away.
Similarly, in the opener “Shania,” two friends become actual blood sisters while sitting in a backyard strewn with empty dog food cans, cigarettes butts and broken bottles. But then their paths suddenly veer in different directions. A direct line can be drawn connecting these girls with their unstable homes to the confining circumstances that trap the many women who populate this book.
Recurring characters casually show up in other stories, reinforcing a sense of coexistence. There comes a point in “Sleepovers” when the characters carousing through the streets cease to be imaginary, and the reader feels not like a passive witness but like one of the townspeople. It’s easy to feel as if you are right there, standing at the checkout line while old Mrs. Creech pays for a hungry girl’s macaroni and milk. You’re mentally pulling for the former postman, whose Alzheimer’s is getting bad. And you’re shaking your head at the news of another crime when the corner store owner is shot and killed for $200 and a watch.
One of the collection’s standouts, “Snowball Jr.,” features a reincarnated deer caught between two worlds. In one world the doe can smell “the insides of flowers far away,” but she misses the perverse experiences from her old life. It serves as a haunting reminder that there’s no escaping the circle of life. Rife with claustrophobic circumstances, dark imagery and nuanced perspectives, “Sleepovers” is a disturbing page-turner that encourages a reevaluation of what’s most important.
By Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
Hub City Press
208 pages, $16.95