Thursday, October 05, 2017

"Aunt Granny Lith" (1990)

Story by Chris Offutt not available online.

Chris Offutt is a native son of Kentucky, which is a good thing because events here traffic dangerously with white trash caricatures. Casey is a moonshiner and maybe a drunk too. Beth is his third wife—his first two died of freak accidents on their wedding days. Casey is not under suspicion for anything. It's not that kind of story. It is, in fact, more the kind of story tempted to poetic flights like portentous wedding days. The deaths are symbolic of Casey's star-crossed fate and/or Beth's ability to back it off with brute strength and courage. Offutt has written that this story "is a hybrid of the Book of Ruth, an eastern European folk story, and the Eleusinian Mysteries from ancient Greece." I guess I'm happy to know it. Offutt also mentions that "two of the female names—Lil and Lith—form the name of Adam's first wife," which I found interesting because I didn't know Adam had a first wife. I read the story first without benefit of any of this, and was entertained by the febrile vibe. It opens, for example, with an energetic brawl between two women before breaking off into the extended flashback that provides most of the action. Knowing the literary sources makes me think I might get more out of it another time, but didn't inspire an immediate revisit. It's rich with detail and swift-moving events, and everything seems to add up. The stuff about Ruth and Adam only packs in more meaning. But hold on a second. Setting aside the thing about Adam having a first wife, how in the world are we supposed to take this stuff about Casey's first two wives? It's so ridiculous as to call attention to itself. Is it a comical transport? Some kind of literalism beyond my ken? As a teen and young adult I snorted at the very idea of symbolism in literature as a lot of preening mental masturbation. I'm more willing to accommodate it now (and good old ham-handed allegory too!) though I remain a little dubious. They still seem a little too easy. Of course, nothing is simple about this story, so there's that. And it's perfectly engaging on the surface, with lots of dialogue, action, and short paragraphs. Maybe I resent that it's making me work so hard after it promised so much fun. More likely, I really don't have much sense of what just happened when I read this story. At a time like this, I miss belonging to a reading group.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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