In an age of plastic surgery, stomach stapling, and laser treatments, American culture has placed its focus not on only hiding flaws but erasing them entirely in the quest for perfection. “Intervention,” by Jill McCorkle, was first published in Ploughshares in 2003 and uses a distinct trait of southern writing, an emphasis on family, to show that perfection is far from ideal; it is through flaws and weaknesses that the greatest love can be shown. McCorkle says of southern writing: “Somewhere woven into the history and detail, the asides that often carry us into left field, there is a plotline—something actually happened— but there are other stories as well, slipping like bright threads in all directions. You follow first this one and then that one, but if you listen long enough, they begin to come clear. There is indeed a pattern and a texture” (“Preface” ix).
“Intervention” is more than a story of the ageing couple Sid and Marilyn. It is also the story of their children, Sally and Tom, and their spouses, Rusty and “Snow Bunny.” While the central plotline of the story is Sid’s pending intervention, readers are rewarded with a multilayered entity containing several stories.
After Marilyn expresses concern to Sally about Sid’s drinking—“there were times when she watched Sid pull out of the driveway only to catch herself imagining that this could be the last time she ever saw him”—Sally begins to plan an intervention (276). “Marilyn has never heard the term intervention before her daughter, Sally, introduces it and showers her with a pile of literature” (275). Marilyn immediately regrets sharing her concerns with her children, and readers experience her unease with keeping a secret from Sid. As she waits for the intervention day to arrive, her feelings are of guilt rather than hope as she reflects on her own flaws, which Sid has carefully helped her erase.
Marilyn and Sid are a strong family unit who have stayed together in spite of a number of potentially fatal mistakes, largely Marilyn’s. Her struggle to forgive herself for an affair that took place when Sally and Tom were young children exists even at the time of the intervention: “Whenever anything in life—the approach of spring, the smell of gin, pine sap thawing and reviving to life—prompts her memory, she cringes and feels the urge to crawl into a dark hole. She does not recognize that woman. That woman was sick. A sick, foolish woman, a woman who had no idea that the best of life was in her hand” (285).
In the style of southern literature, the family pulls together in times of crisis and protects itself against outside forces. In this case, the “outside forces” are their own children. “If you live long enough, your children learn to love you from afar, their lives are front and center and elsewhere. Your life is only what they can conjure from bits and pieces. They don’t know how it all fits together. They don’t know all the sacrifices that have been made” (288). The children and their spouses do not understand the delicate balance of their parents’ marriage, that they are like two playing cards leaning up against one another with the perfect amount of stability. Marilyn’s realization of how much she depends on both the steady presence of Sid and the strength of their history together shows that the survival of a family involves occasionally closing out the surrounding world.
When the family gathers on intervention day, Sid acknowledges their concern and shows Marilyn that familial love is that in which love exists because flaws are embraced and not “fixed.” He makes a show of pouring several bottles of bourbon and Scotch down the kitchen sink. “She [Marilyn] nods and watches him pour out some cheap Scotch he always offers to cheap friends. He keeps the good stuff way up high behind her mother’s silver service” (289). After the children leave, Marilyn fixes them both a drink with the “good stuff” Sid kept hidden. She reflects again on the events surrounding her affair, on their grandchildren, and finally surmises of herself and Sid, “It is their house. It is their life” (290).
While readers are focused on Sid and Marilyn, on their past and future, and on the intervention, McCorkle weaves in elements of Sally and Tom’s lives as well. Sally is married to Rusty, who has been promoted and is thinking about going back to school. Tom’s thread focuses on his former wife and the grandchildren who live in Minnesota and Sid and Marilyn never see but speak to on the phone. Tom and his wife, referred to by Sid and Marilyn as “Snow Bunny,” want to have a child. Tom and Marilyn’s relationship is explored through Marilyn’s recollections of her own drinking history. “She has always wanted to ask him what he remembers from those horrible days. Does he remember finding her there on the floor?” (288–289). The addition of these separate story lines, while not fully developed, provides rich depth of character and the pattern and texture McCorkle suggests are highly characteristic of southern storytelling.
Contemporary southern writing, while shifting into a decidedly “modern” framework, maintains the core characteristics of the foundation established by William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flanery O’Connor. While McCorkle weaves many separate story threads together, the pattern they form is one of family and of love. The support of family in spite of life’s tribulations, while seemingly lost in American culture, is still paramount in southern literature, both classic and contemporary.
McCorkle, Jill. “Intervention.” In Best American Short Stories 2004, edited by Katrina Kenison. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
———. “Preface.” In New Stories from the South 2005, edited by Shannon Ravenel. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005.