Often compared with Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, and Frederick Barthelme, Bobbie Ann Mason (born May 1, 1940) writes fiction that reads like life. Her characters struggle with jobs, family, and self-awareness, continually exuding a lively sense of being. Those who people her stories often transcend circumstance without losing their rootedness in place. Most often her characters struggle to live within a relationship, but are frequently alone. In fiction that resonates with rock-and-roll music and family conflicts, her descriptions leave a reader sometimes feeling uncomfortably aware of a truth about families: Caring does not guarantee understanding or communication.
The short stories are for the most part set in small towns in Kentucky and explore the lives of lower-middle-class people from small towns or farms. Kentucky, a North/South border state, is emblematic of Mason’s concerns with borders, separations, and irrevocable decisions. Mason’s stories typically explore a conflict between the character’s past and future, a conflict that is often exemplified in a split between rural and urban leanings and a modern as opposed to a traditional life. Most often, the point of view in Mason’s short fiction is limited omniscient. She is, however, adept with first-person narration as well. Readers are most often left with a sense of her characters’ need to transcend their life scripts through action, frequently a quest. Her stories typically lack resolution, making them uncomfortably true to life.
Shiloh, and Other Stories
“Shiloh,” the title story in Mason’s first collection, is a story about love, loss, and history. A couple, Leroy and Norma Jean, have been married for sixteen years. They married when Norma Jean was pregnant with their son Randy, a child who died as an infant. Leroy is home recuperating from an accident he had in his truck. His leg is healing, but he is afraid to go back to driving a truck long distances. He takes on traditionally feminine activities in the story: He starts doing crafts, watches birds at the feeder, and remains the passenger in the car even after his leg has healed enough for him to drive.
The accident that forced Leroy to remain at home for months recuperating is the second crisis in the couple’s marriage. The earlier crisis had been their baby’s death. After the baby died, Leroy and Norma Jean remained married but emotionally isolated from each other:
They never speak about their memories of Randy, which have almost faded, but now that Leroy is home all the time, they sometimes feel awkward around each other, and Leroy wonders if one of them should mention the child. He has the feeling that they are waking up out of a dream together.
Now that Leroy is at home, he “sees things about Norma Jean that he never realized before.” Leroy’s staying at home so much leads to several important changes for Norma Jean: She begins to lift weights, takes a writing course, and curses in front of her mother. In response to the repeated suggestion of Norma Jean’s mother, the couple drives to the Shiloh battleground for a second honeymoon trip. At Shiloh, Norma Jean tells Leroy that she wants to leave him. The history of Shiloh is significant to the story of this marriage. Shiloh, an early battle in the Civil War (1861-1865), proved that the Civil War would be a long and bloody one. The story concludes with Leroy merging family history with battleground history and Norma Jean literally flexing her muscles. Their civil war will be Leroy fighting for union and Norma Jean seeking her independent self.
A contemporary history lesson on the fear of polio and communists, “Detroit Skyline, 1949” narrates in first person the summer spent by a nine-year-old girl, Peggy Jo, and her mother as they visit the mother’s sister and her family in Detroit. The story reveals the conflict between rural and city life through the perceptions and desires of Peggy Jo. Seeing her aunt’s neighborhood for the first time, Peggy Jo immediately knows that she wants to live ”in a place like this, with neighbors.” When she plays with the neighbor child, however, Peggy Jo is made to feel incompetent because she does not know how to roller-skate, so she instead spends her time watching television and examining newspaper articles and pictures in her aunt’s scrapbook.
Peggy Jo feels isolated that summer. She observes the smoothness with which her mother and aunt converse, how natural their communication is. When she attends a birthday party for the neighbor child, Peggy Jo notes:
I did not know what to say to the children. They all knew each other, and their screams and giggles had a natural continuity, something like the way my mother talked with her sister, and like the splendid houses of the neighborhood, all set so close together.
For Peggy Jo there is little “natural continuity” of speech or gesture within her aunt’s household that summer. Her own comments are most often cut short, silenced, or discredited by the others. By the end of the summer, Peggy Jo realizes that her “own life [is] a curiosity, an item for a scrapbook.”
Another of Mason’s stories concerning rural isolation is “Offerings,” in which the isolation is redemptive for Sandra, who stays in the couple’s country home instead of traveling with her husband, Jerry, to Louisville, “reluctant to spend her weekends with him watching go-go dancers in smoky bars.” She instead spends her time growing vegetables and tending her cats, ducks, and dogs. Her cobweb-strewn house is not her focus; the outdoors is. The offerings that Sandra makes are many: to her mother, tacit agreement to avoid discussing the separation from Jerry; to her grandmother, the fiction of Jerry’s presence; and to the forces of nature around her, her tamed and dependent ducks. Sandra finds grace through the natural world, exemplified within the final image of the story: dewy spiderwebs that, in the morning, are trampolines enabling her to “spring from web to web, all the way up the hill to the woods.” She cannot be honest with her grandmother and avoids truth in conversation with her mother, but she feels at peace and at home with her yard, the woods, and the wildlife there.
In “Residents and Transients,” Mason’s narrator is also married to a man who has gone away to work in Louisville. Mary, the narrator, is finding her place within a relationship as well as a location. Several images in this story reinforce the theme of stability as opposed to movement. The cats Mary cares for on the farm represent her dilemma of moving to Louisville. To Stephen, her lover, she explains that she has read about two basic types of cats, residents and transients. She cites difference of opinion by researchers over which type is truly superior: those who establish territories and stay there or those who show the greatest curiosity by going from one place to another. Mary is drawn to the stability of her parents’ old farmhouse, feeling the pull of traditional value of place. The single image that most succinctly and horrifically mirrors her dilemma is a rabbit, seen in the headlights as she is driving home. The rabbit at first appears to be running in place, but she realizes that its forelegs are still moving despite the fact that its haunches have been run over. Throughout the story, Mary has been literally running in place, running from her relationship with her husband by taking a lover and running from her life with her husband by remaining in her parents’ old home.
Mary’s position at the end of the story is mirrored by the image of the odd-eyed cat, whose eyes shine red and green. The narrator has been waiting for some signal to move. Her husband’s words do not convince; Mary thinks of them as words that are processed, computerized renderings. She needs more than words; she needs an integrated part of her world to spur her to act. Because her husband is no longer an integral part of her world, she listens and looks for other cues. Apparently, the dying rabbit has spurred her to action. The story ends with Mary “waiting for the light to change.”
Within Mason’s second collection of short fiction, Love Life, the reader sees continued the skillful treatment of people’s decisions and perceptions. “State Champions” is a reminiscence of twenty years past, so it offers a perspective different from that of other works. “State Champions” further explores Mason’s theme of rural versus urban experience by recounting the success of the Cuba Cubs, Kentucky state champions in basketball in 1952. The narrator, Peggy (who appeared earlier in “Detroit Skyline, 1949” but is three years older when this story begins), had seen the team as glamorous, certainly larger than life. As an adult in upstate New York, Peggy is surprised to hear the team referred to as “just a handful of country boys who could barely afford basketball shoes.” Although Peggy had shared in the excitement of the championship season, “State Champions” presents her perceptions of being different from the rest even at that time. She rebelled against authority at school by talking back to the history teacher. She surprised her friend Willowdean with the assertion that she did not want to get pregnant and get married, a normal pattern for the girls at the high school. From her adult perspective, Peggy ascribes her own struggle for words with Glenn, the boy she cared about in 1952, to her status as a “country kid”:
I couldn’t say anything, for we weren’t raised to say things that were heartfelt and gracious. Country kids didn’t learn manners. Manners were too embarrassing. Learning not to run in the house was about the extent of what we knew about how to act.We didn’t learn to congratulate people; we didn’t wish people happy birthday. We didn’t even address each other by name.
Ironically enough, what triggers Peggy’s recollection of the state championship year is the comment by The New Yorker about the poor country boys’ basketball team, certainly a comment not springing from a mannered upbringing.
In “Coyotes,” Mason provides a third-person account from the perspective of a young man, Cobb, who embodies the ambivalence and sensitivity often seen in Mason’s characters. He has asked Lynnette Johnson to marry him, and he continues to look for signs and indications that marriage is the right thing to do. Cobb sees a young clerk in a drugstore showing her wedding ring to a young couple. Their conversation is flat: no congratulations, no excitement. The matter-of-fact nature of the exchange haunts Cobb. He wants his marriage to be the subject of excitement, hugs, celebration. Marriage in general presents itself as a risk, leading him to look further for signs that his own marriage will work. He wonders if Lynnette will find more and more things about him that will offend her. For example, he fails to tell her about having hunted after she tells him that his sweatshirt, on which is written “Paducah, the Flat Squirrel Capital of theWorld,” is in bad taste. He is reassured by their similarities— for example, the fact that they both pronounce “coyote” with an e sound at the end. Lynnette’s past, with a mother who had attempted suicide, is something he recognizes to be significant to them, but he nevertheless speaks confidently with Lynnette about their future. Lynnette fears that her past will somehow intrude on their future, and so, in fact, does Cobb. Their relationship is, as is typical of Mason’s fiction, freighted with all those tangled possibilities.
Past and future as conflicting forces also form a theme of “Private Lies,” in which the male protagonist, Mickey, reestablishes his relationship with his former wife and decides to search for the child they gave up for adoption eighteen years earlier. Mickey’s wife, Tina, has compartmentalized their lives with a regular television schedule and planned activities for their children. Tina has forbidden him to tell their children about his daughter. Mickey, however, cannot ignore the eighteenth birthday of his daughter given up to adoption. The story concludes with Mickey and his former wife, Donna, on the beach in Florida, the state in which they gave up their daughter for adoption. Donna insists that she does not want to find their daughter and that searching is a mistake. She nevertheless accompanies him to Florida, where Mickey seeks to stop telling lies (by silence) and where Donna still seeks to avoid the search, exemplified by her refusal to look inside shells for fear of what she may find in them. Mickey seeks the daughter who will be his bridge between past and future. He seeks to make a new present for himself, a present free of Tina’s control.
All of the stories in Midnight Magic appeared earlier in either Shiloh, and Other Stories or Love Life, but this collection provides a new arrangement and a new introduction by the author. The protagonist of the title story, Steve, is a young man whose personal power is no match for that of his showy “muscle” car. Like other Mason characters, he takes to the road in search of elusive secrets of life, but most of the time Steve merely drives in circles around his small hometown. When he finally heads for a specific destination (the Nashville airport to pick up his recently married friend), he is several hours late. His lateness for this appointment parallels his tardiness in maturing. After seeing a body lying beside the road, Steve tries to report it to a 911 emergency operator. Unfortunately, he cannot discover his specific geographic location just as he cannot define his place on the road of life. Steve’s girlfriend, Karen, finds guidance in the spiritual teachings of Sardo, an ancient Native American now reincarnated in the body of a teenager. Steve also “wants something miraculous” but simply “can’t believe in it.” Thus, his persistent hope outstrips his fleeting faith.
Mason recalls that as a college student she associated late-night hours with a “mood of expectation”—“the sense that anything might happen.” Thus, the title “Midnight Magic” suggests sympathy for a feckless but engaging misfit. In her introduction Mason describes Steve as a “guy who keeps imagining he’ll get it together one day soon, who seeks transcendence and wants to believe in magic.”
Another story with a confused male protagonist is “Big Bertha Stories.” Written while Mason was working on In Country, this story also dramatizes the lingering effects of the war in Vietnam. Donald has come back from war physically, but he cannot make it all the way home emotionally. He operates a huge machine in a strip mine, and his destruction of the land recalls the horrors of war. Attempting to create some order in his life, Donald makes up stories about powerful superheroes. These stories begin with humor and high hopes but break off in chaos. Just as Donald cannot complete his journey home, he can never bring his fictions to a suitable conclusion. Having lost his youth in Vietnam, he becomes old prematurely and can no longer function as husband and father.
Still another story from Midnight Magic that tries to reconcile past with present is “Nancy Culpepper.” Here the title character is apparently based on Mason herself, and she reappears in the story “Lying Doggo” and the novel Spence Lila. The key symbols in “Nancy Culpepper” are photographs. Nancy recalls that the photographs from her wedding were fuzzy double exposures, just as the wedding itself was a superimposition of a strange new identity upon her southern rural past. Several years after the wedding she returns home to Kentucky to rescue old family pictures. She searches in particular for a likeness of her namesake, but this particular photograph is not found, just as her own sense of identity remains elusive.
Novels: In Country, 1985; Spence Lila, 1988; Feather Crowns, 1993; An Atomic Romance, 2005.
Nonfiction: Nabokov’s Garden: A Guide to “Ada,” 1974; The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide to the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and Their Sisters, 1975, 1995; Clear Springs: A Memoir, 1999; Elvis Presley, 2002.
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Eckard, Paula Gallant. Maternal Body and Voice in Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lee Smith. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002.
Giannone, Richard. “Bobbie Ann Mason and the Recovery of Mystery.” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (Fall, 1990): 553-566.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Pollack, Harriet. “From Shiloh to In Country to Feather Crowns: Bobbie Ann Mason, Women’s History, and Southern Fiction.” The Southern Literary Journal 28 (Spring, 1996): 95-116.
Price, Joanna. Understanding Bobbie Ann Mason. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
Rothstein, Mervyn. “Homegrown Fiction: Bobbie Ann Mason Blends Springsteen and Nabokov.” The New York Times Biographical Service 19 (May, 1988): 563-565.
Ryan, Maureen. “Stopping Places: Bobbie Ann Mason’s Short Stories.” In Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy W. Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984.
Thompson, Terry. “Mason’s ‘Shiloh.’” The Explicator 54 (Fall, 1995): 54-58.
Wilhelm, Albert E. Bobbie Ann Mason: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1998.
____________. “Bobbie Ann Mason: Searching for Home.” In Southern Writers at Century’s End, edited by Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.