Monday, March 24, 2008

Rereading Ellen Gilchrist

When I was at college in Conway Arkansas, Fayetteville writer Ellen Gilchrist published her first book of short stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, and my friends and I all read the stories and enjoyed them immensely. They were about glamorous and self-destructive and somehow foreign kinds of people, people the age of my parents who wouldn't turn out so well because they lived hard and were going to die young. But they did things the way my parents and their cousins had done them: "We walked into Nell's and Blum's Department Store and took up the largest dressing room. My grandmother and Miss Onnie Maud were seated on brocade chairs and every saleslady in the store came crowding around trying to get in on the wedding" (Revenge).

When Gilchrist's subsequent books of short stories came out, we bought them and read them, enjoying them with the same kind of childish wonder for a world now gone by (the narrator of Victory over Japan is almost exactly the same age as my mother). They became a part of my mental wallpaper. Ron and I often say we should have named our cat Sammy, who will meow insistently over and over when you talk to him, Traceleen, after the character in the story entitled "Miss Crystal's Maid Name Traceleen, She's Talking, She's Telling Everything She Knows."

By the time later books of short stories by Gilchrist came out, I was getting tired of reading about women who diet and drink too much and sleep with men they don't know well. So I quit reading Gilchrist, as I think most people did, especially when she started trying to write novels.

Recently, though, I started rereading some of her early short stories. A lot of them haven't aged well. My favorite, however, is still a wonderful story: The Famous Poll at Jody's Bar. This is a story about Nora Jane Whittington, who is "nineteen years old, a self-taught anarchist and a quick-change artist." She falls in love with a worthless teenage boy who leaves her for the west coast, and she then decides to rob a bar so she can join him: "Once she settled on a plan of action she was certain all she needed was a little luck and she was as good as wading in the Pacific Ocean. One evening's work and her hands were back in Sandy's hair."

On the planned day of Nora Jane's robbery, the bar, called Jody's, is asking every man who goes by to vote in a poll: "Just mark it yes or no. Whatever advice you would give your closest friend if he came to you and told you he was thinking of getting married."

Since the poll is being conducted under a hand-lettered sign that says "This poll is being conducted without regard to sex or previous condition of servitude," just one "yes" vote will decide the matrimonial future of a character named Prescott, who "didn't really care whether he married Emily Anne Hughes or not. He and Emily Anne had been getting along fine for years without getting married, and he didn't see what difference his moving into Emily Anne's house at this late date was going to make in the history of the world."

At the end of the story, Nora Jane robs the bar and gets the money to follow Sandy out to the west coast. As she leaves, "she stopped, marked a ballot, folded it neatly, and dropped it into the Mason jar."

I like this story now as much as I liked it when I first read it. Back then, I identified a little bit with Nora Jane. Now, with less of my own, I admire her optimism.

1 comment:

CSchu said...

One of the things that eventually soured me on Ellen Gilchrist was that she had recurring characters that I started out liking and then disliked more and more. The character from "Victory over Japan" whom I liked because she was smart and spunky seemed to become more and more stupid and self-destructive as she grew older.

This was also true of over characters. You alluded to this when you talked about characters that drank too much and slept with men they didn't know (or men that they didn't really like in any human sense.)

I, too, have the sense that if I read some of these once favored stories again that I wouldn't like them as much. That's pretty much why I haven't read them in a while.