Short Stories in a Southern Landscape

By Jones, Malcolm | International New York Times, January 16, 2014 | Go to article overview

Short Stories in a Southern Landscape


Jones, Malcolm, International New York Times


At 92 , the novelist and short-story writer Elizabeth Spencer remains a distinguished regional voice.

Starting Over. Stories. By Elizabeth Spencer. 208 pages. Liveright Publishing. $24.95.

Elizabeth Spencer published her first novel in 1948. Seven more followed, along with five volumes of short stories and the novella "The Light in the Piazza." There would also be a play and an exquisite memoir. Now there is a new book of stories, "Starting Over." Given that Ms. Spencer is 92, it's tempting to call the title audacious, but since there seems to be nothing this extraordinary writer can't do, maybe she's just being realistic. Like most of her work, the nine stories in this collection are set in the South, and they concentrate on families, most from small towns, and the bonds that characterize, constrict and sometimes sustain the people who claim kin with one another. Ms. Spencer recounts the details and doings of her characters in such spare, unfussy, almost conversational prose that she sounds at first like nothing so much as a shrewd family storyteller.

I can see the members of my own family -- or almost anyone in the South, for that matter -- reading these fictions and then going on to talk as though the people in them were quite real. What do you mean, she wouldn't wear the wedding dress? Did he really see that boy standing on the corner with a sack of peanuts? These questions are logical, not lunatic, because the surface of Ms. Spencer's fiction is filled with the everyday doings of normal people -- weddings, Christmas pageants, summer vacations. A man is torn between his love for his wife and his love for his mother. The new couple down the road, at first glance so hospitable, are not at all what they seem. Nothing much happens in these stories that hasn't happened to any of us.

Ms. Spencer's great gift is her ability to take ordinariness and turn it inside out, to find focus in a muddle. She constructs her stories out of gossip and old memories and anecdotes not so much for their own sakes but as a means of locating the mysteries about people, the things that don't add up. She's more interested in the subterranean emotions, the half-forgotten grudges, the ancient allegiances that animate every family's history. And she's interested in how time changes things, sometimes because we can't escape the past, but just as often because we can't reclaim it.

In "The Boy in the Tree," a middle-aged man looking back on his life wonders "if happiness always came in packages, wrapped up in time. Try to extend the time, and the package got stubborn. Not wanting to be opened, it just sat and remained the same. You couldn't get back in it because time had carried you on elsewhere." Starting over isn't an option for the characters in these stories. It's an inexorable part of life.

Nearly every story begins one way and then veers off in a direction you never anticipated. In "Return Trip," Patricia and Boyd are spending the summer at a cottage in the North Carolina mountains. There they are surprised by not one but two guests -- their college-age son, Mark, and Edward, a cousin of Patricia's who shows up out of nowhere after an absence of many years.

The tension in the story arises from Boyd's dislike of Edward, whom he discovered in bed with his wife years ago at the house of some aunt of Patricia's down in Mississippi. Both Edward and Patricia had passed out after a little too much partying, and both were fully clothed when Boyd found them, but he can't leave the incident alone, not least because Mark is said to be the spitting image of Edward. …

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