Jayne Anne Phillips
" Her name is Joyce Casto and she rides
our school bus. The Castos all look alike. Skinny, freckled,
straw-haired. Joyce’s is the color of broom sage, dried out
by some heat in her head. She walks the halls of the junior high with a
clipboard of ruffled papers, transistor radio beating in her hand.
Daddy is a fire-and-brimstone preacher at a church out the dirt road.
Music is the work of a devil that works at her legs. She stands, radio
pressed to her face, lips working. "
Reviewed by Brian George
Anne Phillips is not as well-known as she should be, at least, not
outside the USA. This may be because she’s not a very
prolific writer. Over a career spanning nearly thirty years,
she’s published two collections of short stories and three
novels. It may also be because her work is so rooted in the unglamorous
aspects of American life –this is not the America of Wall
Street, Hollywood or comfortable middle-class suburbia. Her stories are
peopled by poor farmers, working-class people, rootless drifters,
mostly living far away from the well-known metropolitan centres.
published in 1979 when she was 26, was her first full collection of
stories. For a debut collection, it’s astonishing in its
range, ambition and the strikingly assured quality of its prose style.
Back then, Phillips was categorized as a proponent of ‘dirty
realism’, and while this is a term that seems to have fallen
out of fashion, it’s easy to see why this description was
used. There are stories about drug addiction, self-induced abortion and
petty crime. Many of the characters live in conditions of poverty,
often squalor. Disease is a recurrent theme, with cancer a particular
obsession. Many of these stories are not for the squeamish: this is
emphatically not an easy read. Here’s a passage showing an
American girl and her Colombian boyfriend smuggling drugs:
"They ran coke
and smack across the border in a flatbed truck with two borrowed babies
and some goats tied in back. Their stench in the flat heat, Hernando
dozing, his hands fisted. She felt them being devoured in the
carnivorous satin flower of Colombia. They pulled off the road and
squatted behind a chicken coop to fix. She saw he had done too much,
his eyes glazed. The coke came up in her throat. She grabbed the needle
from him and stuck it in a squawking rooster."
a merciless quality to passages like this, a total absence of
sentimentality. Yet Phillips does far more in these stories than give
us mere reports of the seamy side of life. She’s brilliant at
uncovering the tensions beneath the surface of family life, showing the
constant interplay of attraction and revulsion between husbands and
wives, parents and children.
Above all she
finds and communicates a
sense of wonder, the poetry inherent in the most apparently ordinary,
or hopeless, lives. This reflects a broad empathy on the
writer’s part, a willingness to identify with, not to judge,
people normally classed as losers, but also derives from an exact and
sensuous evocativeness in the prose:
"He left for
good soon after, thirty pounds of Mexican grass
stashed in the truck for a connection in Detroit. I went as far north
as I could get, snow that winter in Ottawa a constant slow sift that
cooled and cleaned a dirt heat I kept feeling for months; having
nothing of her but a sketch I’d taken from where she hid
them: a picture of trains dark slashed on tracks, and behind them the
sky opens up like a hole."
feature of the collection taken as a whole is the way it
intersperses very short pieces – what we might call flash
fiction these days – with longer stories. The longer stories
themselves are far from traditional in style, some of them using
multiple perspectives, while others are intense interior monologues.
But for me it is the shorter pieces which are the most striking. Some
of them are more akin to prose poems than ‘stories’
as we normally understand the term. The best – Solo Dance,
for example, or Under
the Boardwalk – are among the most
powerful pieces of fiction I’ve ever read, in their capacity
to reverberate in the reader’s imagination long after
you’ve put the book down. It took me about three minutes to
read Under the Boardwalk,
but it continues to haunt me fifteen years
This makes it
all the more surprising that Phillips seems to
have abandoned writing flash fiction after she published this
collection. But anyone who appreciates the intensity of good flash
fiction should read Black
Tickets. Phillips has an uncanny ability to
evoke a way of life, a whole world, in a sentence or two:
"So I hitched
down Sunday morning, mud churches on all three
dirt streets ringing their black bells. I found him wringing a
chicken’s neck in the yard, did it quick and finished before
he looked at me."
lives in South Wales. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in
literary journals, and he was a prizewinner in the 2001 Rhys Davies
Competition. His first collection of short stories, Walking the
Labyrinth, is published by Stonebridge Publications.
Publisher: Faber & Faber
was born in West Virginia in 1952 and now lives in Massachussets. She
has published two collections of short stories, Black Tickets and Fast
Lanes, and three novels, Machine Dreams, Shelter and Motherkind. She is
Professor of English and Director of the MFA Program at Rutgers Newark
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