Artists and Beauticians: Balance in Lee Smith's Fiction

By MacKethan, Lucinda H. | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 1982 | Go to article overview

Artists and Beauticians: Balance in Lee Smith's Fiction


MacKethan, Lucinda H., The Southern Literary Journal


In Lee Smith's story, "Artists," a young girl finds herself faced with a choice of identities that is reflected in the two pitched camps her family forms near her grandfather's deathbed; when the girl's father brings the dying old man's mistress to sit by his side, the family divides into those who are loyal to the grandmother, ensconced in frozen decorum downstairs in her Florida room painting cardinals and doves, and those who respect the mistress, a beauty shop proprietor who had been the one light of the grandfather's life for twenty years. "The whole family had to take sides," Jennifer notes, yet she herself cannot. Her grandmother's pet, heiress to the old lady's aristocratic and artistic predilectons, Jennifer goes downstairs to sit dutifully by Grandmother's side, yet she "couldn't stay away from Grandaddy's room either," where she was "mesmerized by Millie Crews with her generous slack mouth and her increasingly rumpled beautician's uniform." (1)

Which road to follow--high art and waist-length hair, suffering and self-willed isolation from such "bestial" (CW, p. 108) desires as midnight excursions to the refrigerator, or the "beautician's' entrenchment in rumpled realities of the flesh, page-boy curls, and kissing cousins? How to balance the longing after Beauty and Art with the necessary noises of the craft of life? Jennifer's decision in "Artists" (the plural form of the title reflecting the plurality of means to that end) suggests the value of openness and generosity and also indicates the value of balance that is central to Lee Smith's fiction. Not only do her works concern thematically the problem of choosing between or balancing the ordinary and the mysterious, the earthy and the ethereal, but technically, too, the stories and novels, most notably the last two books, strike a balance of effects, particularly in their choices of tone, point of view, and texture.

Before considering the balance that Smith achieves in these areas, we should perhaps examine some of the continuities that she has established for her fiction. Three of the four novels and many of the stories collected in Cakewalk (1981) chart the rites of passage of girl protagonists entering the world of womanhood and its consequences, from dawning sexuality, to commitments, to desertions, even to death. The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed (1968) takes Susan Tobey from the beginning to the end of her ninth summer, concentrating on her exposure to a worldly, close to satanic boy whose growing influence over her parallels her growing awareness of the reality of her parents' dissolving marriage, a reality she has hidden by transforming her mother's world into a fantasy land of queen and court. Something in the Wind (1971) presents a more mature and deeper search in the story of Brooke Kincaid, a high school senior launched on a mission for an identity by the death of the boy friend who had always provided her roles and her certainties. Black Mountain Breakdown (1980) builds from but goes far beyond Smith's first two novels, using a new point of view to allow the focus on Crystal Spangler to go deeper than her mind can take us. The "breakdown" noted in the title occurs as the last frame in a sequence that begins with Crystal at twelve, catching lightning bugs outside a home at the foot of the mountain to which she returns after a life of searching for a way to remove herself from its shadow.

Susan Tobey, Brooke Kincaid, and Crystal Spangler are alike in that they are not so much actors as they are choosers, called upon to balance opposing demands, conflicting needs. They are watchers rather than catalysts, and in each book male friends supplant family ties, setting in motion incidents or delivering challenges that the girl or young woman initially accepts rather passively as a means to balance some lack in the patterns available through her life at home. Susan Tobey contends with Eugene and his frightening invisible companion, Little Arthur. …

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