Retired from teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Kelly Cherry lives in rural Virginia. Her book's titular women also live in the South, in Richmond, Charleston, Atlanta, Huntsville, New Orleans.
A line from Norman Mailer introduces the stories: "This country is so complicated that when I start to think about it I begin talking in a Southern accent." As they puzzle over time, Cherry's characters — white, black, Jew, gentile, a mixed-race girl studying at Florida State — are as complicated, perhaps, as Mailer's vision of America. Sometimes, as with Georgianna Starlington, the first runner-up in the Miss Mississippi competition, they fear emotional attachments while being needful of them. Other characters, say the long-suffering Jeanne in "Au Secours," nurture a lover until the nurturer grows mentally unstable. These characters dread loneliness and old age. Hesitant about the future, they regret the past. Other times, Cherry's women try to slow or to stop time.
Especially since the Civil War, time has intrigued Southern authors. Cherry's interest in it goes back to the ancients. In addition to being a fiction writer, poet and essayist, she has translated plays by Sophocles and Seneca. Something wistful and diaphanous, a word derived from the Greek, wends through her time-haunted stories. Parts of them, in the best sense of the word, are "characterized by extreme delicacy of form: ETHEREAL."
In "A Change of Life," a teacher at a girls' school loves the way the Greeks and Romans had "of stopping time by turning it into a story." When France and Philomena, her partner, begin questioning their relationship, Cherry introduces the Greek goddess of women and marriage, who stops time. To assuage the lovers' doubts, Hera, the goddess, "kept Philomena as a flower and changed France into a book, and put the flower in the book, and shut it." At first described playfully while the lovers sleep, the goddesses' intercession takes on an increasingly delicate, magical tone.
In "Will Fitts Finds Out," "a lesser god from a half-forgotten religion, a local god … of grove or natural spring" appears in time to watch over a boy. In "A Life Long and Short" and "Her Life to Come" (the FSU student's story), a single moment, held, changes characters. In the funny, harrowing "The Piano Lesson," Mrs. Edith Womack, an elderly piano teacher, gets drunk and disrobes before her adolescent pupil. Later, lost in a kind of enchanted grove, Jessie, the student, wonders about time.
In "The Starveling," a young woman leaves her phony artist boyfriend. As if divinely inspired, she begins to create her own beauty. Here again, the gods of antiquity are at work.
Thinking about these exemplary stories, I realize that some of them might very well be timeless.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.