“Time for Bed”
Author: Wendy Rawlings
Publisher: LSU Press
Price: $24.95 (Paper)
Wendy Rawlings teaches fiction writing at UA and is the recipient of grants and prizes and the author of two previous volumes of stories. These 13 lightly interlinked stories were first published in such periodicals as “Kenyon Review,” “Indiana Review,” “Southern Review” and others. She is, in short, a professional, and these stories are artful and polished.
They all examine women in contemporary American life, and although there are moments of wry or bitter humor, mostly these are unhappy people, liberated, yes, but thwarted, in unsatisfying relationships, some alcoholic, most with eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, obesity.
Sometimes it is necessary for reviewers to remind readers that short story collections are a different emotional terrain from novels. A reader sinks into a good novel, lives in the world of the book, be it Pat Conroy or Charles Dickens, for long periods of time, putting it down for a while, then picking it back up, leading finally to the climax and denouement.
Some picaresque novels or genre novels like westerns have several risings and fallings, chapters or sections ending in cliffhangers or mini climaxes.
Stories are different. Each story is a separate entity, complete unto itself. Edgar Allen Poe laid it out. Read the story in a single sitting and a good story will have one strong emotional effect.
Readers of “Time for Bed” would be well advised to read these stories one a day, or at even greater intervals. The effect of reading them singly may be quite different from the cumulative effect of reading them all at once, as I did.
The majority of stories are socio-realistic, but two are definitely not, so I’ll begin there. “Again” opens this way: “Jim and Mary Ford had done it all wrong. ….It was the 60’s. No one could raise a kid right.” Their daughter Carol is single, tattooed, “skinny as a stalk.” Carol doesn’t sleep well, makes “asymmetrical mobiles for a living” in Berkeley.
They decide to start over. Carol will be born again. She climbs into her mother’s womb. “Fortunately, Carol was a small woman and her mother was large.” Carol resides there for nine months, has to endure her mother’s hiccups and discomfort and at the end will be reborn.
The first and last stories are, loosely speaking, ripped from the headlines.
“Coffins for Kids” the opener, is a scream of pain. Naomi’s 7-year-old daughter has been murdered in a school massacre. She is shopping for her child’s coffin, choosing among those decorated with Mutant Ninja turtles, butterflies, and even one with a deer head on top and “attached to the side, a child-sized rifle.”
The second and third sentences read: “The gunman didn’t like redheads, okay, but he liked, I don’t know what? Blasting the brains of seven-year-olds across a wall map of the United States…?”
Images like that are powerful, true, but perhaps too straight-on.
Infuriated by Wayne LaPierre’s statement decrying “the tragedy of ‘gun-free zones,’ i.e. elementary schools,” Naomi decides to drive to Fairfax, Virginia and shoot him.
Rawlings’ last story is set against the Twin Towers on 911, again, a situation fraught with emotional baggage.
Evie Myerson, would-be fiction writer, is having an affair with Brendan Fahey, married Irish bread delivery man. Evie conjures up possible plots, thinking how her creative writing teacher would evaluate them. A biographical plot: a young woman moves to Montana with an Irishman who left his wife?
“Nineteen Arab men come to the United States and learn how to fly so they can hijack commercial airplanes and carry out simultaneous suicide missions aimed at symbolic American targets…”?
Incredible. Who would believe it?
For many years critics and writers of American fiction have complained, half-jokingly, that in our world, fiction stands no chance against the bizarre everyday realities of the evening news. Might this finally be coming to be the case?
Evie also considers the plausibility of a story about a woman married 20 years who suddenly leaves her husband for another woman, which is just what Evie’s mother did. In a metafictional twist, that IS the plot of the second story in the collection, “Portrait of My Mother’s Head on a Plate.”
Upper-middle-class Emily, a college freshman, is stunned to learn her high school art teacher mother has run off with one of the cafeteria ladies—a woman who wears a hair net to work.
Her boyfriend Keith, clearly shallow and useless, is giving her the run-around, Emily explains, “meaning he’ll sleep with me but not talk to me, like, in the daytime.”
Emily concludes: “I’ll go on like this for a number of years, passive and compliant in bed as a patient on a gurney.” In the very next story, the protagonist, meeting with her mother, the mother’s partner, her father and his new fiancé, Dawn, announces she has joined Weight-Watchers.
Most of the women in these stories are seriously depressed, happy with neither their sex lives nor their bodies. In the other fantasy story—I said there were two—a 350-pound lesbian, having tried everything including surgeries, swaps bodies with a Kenyan marathoner. HE knows how to exercise the pounds off. Then they will swap back. But his wife likes his now-soft hands and her partner “likes when she’s a man for her.”
These are well made stories, sometimes bitterly comic, perhaps illuminating a slice of our society but finally, I think, sad.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.