Southern Irony, Tribal Ceremonies

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 21, 2003 | Go to article overview

Southern Irony, Tribal Ceremonies


Byline: Shaazka Beyerle, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Shirley Ann Grau may hail from the land of Southern belles but she is no shrinking violet. She is the author of countless short stories, and five novels, including "The Keepers of the House," which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1965. After gracing the pages of American literature for almost 50 years, she has chosen 18 stories spanning her career for a new volume simply titled Selected Stories (Louisiana State University Press, $29.95, 274 pages).

Miss Grau has an immense capacity to get under the skin of her characters, be they women or men, old or young, black or white, bubbas or country clubbers. "One Summer" is a brilliant chronicle of a boy's revelatory passage from youth to adulthood. The night of his grandfather's wake, Mac comprehends his own mortality, which ignites a fear of death that will haunt him the rest of his life. "One day I'll be that afraid . . . All of a sudden I knew that. Knew that for the first time, I'll be old and afraid."

Without resorting to hideous extremes, "One Summer" also encapsulates much that was obscene about segregation - the comfort of white, middle-class, "upright" Southern life within this system; the caricatured, repugnant lens through which many whites viewed blacks; and their mostly utilitarian relations in spite of the close interaction of the two races. Louis Wilkes, a servant of the "old gentleman," is casually described by Mac as a "poppy-eyed little black monkey of a Negro, no taller than a twelve-year-old, but strong as a man and twice as quick."

The author possesses a unique style that balances brawn with depth and tenderness. "Hunter" opens with a gruesome yet strangely poetic description of a plane crash in which one woman survives. "A yellow column of flame appeared in the aisle. Glittering, shining. The color of sun, burning like sun. She saw her daughter - recognized the blue and white stripes of her dress - saw her daughter, arms outstretched, rise to meet it. Pass through the gleaming gateway and vanish."

The sometimes unseemly coexistence of life and death is brought into stark contrast: "All around her small lives went on, undisturbed. Grass broke through its softened seed, uncoiling to the surface, lifting tents of mud on the points of its sharp blades. Leaves unrolled from their tight curls on the twigs overhead, relaxing to the air with soft whisperings of content."

In "The Beginning" the power of a mother's love triumphs over social and racial obstacles. "You are, my mother would say, 'the queen of the world, the jewel of the lotus, the pearl without price, my secret treasure.' . . . Her light high whisper threaded through all my days, linking them tightly together, from the day of my birth, from that first moment when I slid from her body to lie in the softness of her bed, the same bed she slept in now."

Miss Grau is equally adept with irony and humor. "The Patriarch" is a cynically funny treat, in which a wealthy 88-year-old curmudgeon narrates his life through a mosaic of recollections. …

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