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Black Tickets

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

Jayne 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.

Black Tickets, 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." 

There’s 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." 

An interesting 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 later. 

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."

Brian George 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.

Brian's other Short Reviews: Nathan Englander "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges"


PublisherFaber & Faber

Publication Date:1979

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: Jayne Anne Phillips 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 University.

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What other reviewers thought:

New York Times