Maybe what’s most surprising about Jill McCorkle‘s new short story collection, Going Away Shoes (Algonquin, 2009) is that the author blurb on the dust jacket places the author in Hillsborough, N.C. where she lives with her husband. Not that McCorkle shouldn’t be contently domestic, but we as readers have come to suspect that, even in fiction, characters and plots are drawn from the writer’s personal experience. Shoes (apparently unlike McCorkle’s reality) reveals an array of heroines struggling with unsatisfying relationships, stunted marriages, messy divorces and the fragmented quietude of single life.
What’s not surprising about this book is that McCorkle tackles her subject matter with dark humor and biting candor. From the opening story (from which the book takes its name), McCorkle presents a scenario so impossibly horrid that by the very essence of its bleakness it’s almost funny. Middle aged Debby, the sole member of her family not given to complete narcissism, has put her own life on hold to care take her infirm mother. The mother’s slow decline has not made her any kinder to Debby, however, and Debby’s days are filled with TV reruns, soap operas and fantasies about pulling the plug. McCorkle uses an excellent literary tool: the repeated line. It’s “I don’t understand,” borrowed from the soaps that run like a current through the story’s background.
“It’s hard to watch a soap opera and not feel somewhat better about your own life,” McCorkle writes. “The have such huge problems and such stupid ways of expressing them. They say ‘I don’t understand’ every other line, which is a stall tactic used to carry things over to commercial.” And later: “‘I’ll do anything to keep you,’ an old anorextic-looking, liquor-swiling woman says on the television to a much younger man, who looks greasy enough to ooze… He says, ‘I don’t understand,’ but looks at her in a way that says, Yes, I do, and as soon as I can shed myself of her sorry ass, I’ll be gone.”
That repeated line function pops up again in other stories. In “Midnight Clear,” the tale of a divorcee trying to make a nice Christmas for her two young sons despite a backed up sewage tank, the line is “What makes this night different from all the rest?” It’s a line borrowed from religion, meant to inspired the story’s characters to think of blessings, or miracles, or kindness to others inspired by a child in a manger. Instead: “So, what makes this night different? It hits me when I open the back door to take out the trash. It smells like shit. Literally.”
Not every story in Shoes is as accessibly funny. There’s “Happy Accidents” in which a new mother, recently abandoned by her partner, escapes into Bob Ross reruns. Yes, the afro-wearing 80s-era T.V. landscape painter is a bit of a pop culture icon; the idea of turning to him for comfort in a time of need is pretty out there. In “PS,” a bitterly divorced woman writes to her marriage counselor: a funny premise that wears thin when the letter becomes too rankled, too one-sided, too long-winded.
But in most cases, McCorkle’s risks pay off. “Me and Big Foot” is a lithe and light-hearted tale of a single woman who protects her solitude with a made up boyfriend. It’s a simple concept, but McCorkle’s take is fresh: “I never tire of closing my eyes and seeing him there. He is the best man I’ve ever known. He never mentions if my legs are prickly or toenail polish chipped or if I look plumper and my breath smells of baked Brie or garlic.”
Jill McCorkle reads from Going Away Shoes at Malaprop’s on Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter
Other upcoming book-related events:
• Musician and historian Wayne Erbsen released Manners & Morals of Victorian America, based on late 19th and early 20th century etiquette books, earlier this year. He shares a booksigning date with Barbara Swell, author of recently-published A Garden Supper Tonight: Historical Seasonal Recipes & Home Lore, at Barnes & Nobel on Friday, Oct. 16, 7 p.m.
• Local independent publishing house Grateful Steps Publishing hosts the first WNC Publishing Expo at Jubilee! Community Church on Wall St., Asheville. Meet local authors and publishers and to learn about the pub lishing industry in the region. Bright Mountain Books, Alexander Boooks, Asheville Poetry Review, New Native Press and Lifestories Publishing, among others, will also be sharing their authors’ work. Saturday, Oct. 17, 1:30-5:30 p.m. Free. Info: 277-0998.
• Author Ellie Waters reads and signs copies of Kibou: The Travis Waters Story, a self-published a memoir about her son’s cancer journey. The event takes place Saturday, Oct. 24, 1 p.m. at Malaprop’s.
• UNC Press holds a free public event to celebrate recent launches. Titles include William Ferris’ Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues, Long Story Short: Flash Fiction by Sixty-five of North Carolina’s Finest Writers, edited by Marianne Gingher and Foy Allen Edelman’s Sweet Carolina: Favorite Desserts and Candies from the Old North State. These authors will attend; Doug Orr, UNC Press author and President Emeritus, Warren Wilson College and Anne Ponder, Chancellor, UNC Asheville will make opening remarks. Join the festivities on Sunday, Oct. 25, 3-5 p.m. at the Country Club at the Grove Park Inn.