Mason, Bobbie Ann (Vol. 28)
Bobbie Ann Mason 1940–
American short story writer and critic.
Shiloh and Other Stories (1982), Mason's first fictional collection, is set in rural Paducah, Kentucky, where she grew up. The sixteen stories in Shiloh depict a changing South, a world in which characters must reconcile elements of the past, represented by the older generation, with the present. Mason's characters are introduced to the modern world primarily through television. She uses such concrete details as brand names to illustrate the effects of mass culture on the society she portrays, and many of her working-class characters are employed in chain stores rather than on farms or in family businesses. The intrusion of the present into the lives of Mason's people creates not only commercial and material changes, but also more threatening changes in societal mores. Several of the stories concern married couples who are divorced or separated; progress places the same strain on family relationships in Paducah as it does elsewhere.
Critical reaction to Shiloh has been overwhelmingly positive. Mason has been applauded especially for her skillful rendering of a language rich in Southern regionalisms and her often humorous dialogue, both of which help to bring her characters to life. Some critics have commented, however, that Mason's stories are weakened by the same lack of aim or resolution which characterizes much of modern fiction.
Mason has also published two works of literary criticism: Nabokov's Garden: A Guide to Ada (1974) and The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide (1975), which explores and evaluates series fiction written for girls.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 11.)
[To say that Mason] is a "new" writer is to give entirely the wrong impression, for there is nothing unformed or merely promising about her. She is a full-fledged master of the short story, and Shiloh and Other Stories, her first collection, is a treasure.
Her characters are backwoods Kentuckians, for the most part, and they're so vividly and lovingly portrayed that we feel we know everything about them. We know their food: the potato and mushroom-soup casseroles, uncooked fruitcake made with graham cracker crumbs and marshmallows, and marshmallow-centered sweet-potato balls rolled in crushed cornflakes. We know their clothing: the women's pantsuits and the men's Worm-and-Germ caps from the feed mill. We know they earn their living selling Tupperware or clerking in Kroger's, the K-Mart, or J. C. Penney, and they pass their free time making latch hook wall hangings of an Arizona sunset. (pp. 36, 38)
What they say comes through so clearly and directly that their voices ring through our living rooms…. Their English is often ungrammatical and filled with gangling, country-style similes, but not a one of these people is described with anything less than complete respect.
Characters alone, of course, don't make a story, no matter how quirky or colorful; nor does an eagle eye or a perfect-pitch ear. What matters finally is that the story enlarge our view of human beings, and these do. They are...
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For several years short stories by Bobbie Ann Mason have been turning up—rather improbably, it seemed—in The New Yorker and The Atlantic. The improbability lay in the fact that Miss Mason writes almost exclusively about working-class and farm people coping with their muted frustrations in western Kentucky (south of Paducah, not far from Kentucky Lake, if that helps you), and the gap to be bridged empathically between her readership and her characters was therefore formidable. But formidable also is Miss Mason's talent, and her craftsmanship. "Shiloh and Other Stories," her first collection, shows not only how good she can be but how consistently good she remains. The most improbable thing about this volume is that not a single page lags, hardly a paragraph fails, not one among 16 stories is less than impressive….
Loss and deprivation, the disappointment of pathetically modest hopes, are the themes Bobbie Ann Mason works and reworks. She portrays the disquieted lives of men and women not blessed with much money or education or luck, but cursed with enough sensitivity and imagination to allow them to suffer regrets. These are lives seen against an equally disquieted social landscape, where old grocery stores with front porches are being replaced by things called "the Convenient," where the grown daughters of ranch wives work as clerks at K Mart, where higher wisdom comes in via the Phil Donahue show….
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To me, the small-town Kentucky people of Bobbie Ann Mason's are stranger and more remote than the inhabitants of any French, Italian or Spanish village. I think it's because many of the men and women in "Shiloh and Other Stories" seem to improvise their styles of being, while the people in European towns are more likely to begin with, refer to, or depart from a recognizable tradition.
Miss Mason's people live in the spaces cleared or emptied by the movement of American life, rather than in the configurations created by time and change. They don't seem to progress from one thing to another, but to fall between one thing and another, to live in an absence bracketed by nostalgia and apprehension. To be restless or rootless in a small American town is to suffer a modern anxiety with none of the camouflaging sophistication of the big city.
A couple of these stories are about husbands who, for one reason or another, are at home alone with their wives, where they look at one another in surprise, as if they suddenly saw themselves stripped of all contexts, as if the world around them abruptly fell away and left them mercilessly exposed. One such husband feels an impulse to explain himself to his wife, as if they had forgotten who they were and what they had expected to do together.
The men in "Shiloh and Other Stories" are sometimes silent and transient, as if their only language was a language of...
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Vision and technique come exhilaratingly together in Bobbie Ann Mason's collection of stories [Shiloh and Other Stories]. She is one of those rare writers who, by concentrating their attention on a few square miles of native turf, are able to open up new and surprisingly wide worlds for the delighted reader. Less tragically gloomy than Raymond Carver, Mason nonetheless resembles that fine writer in the way she lays bare the heart of a domestic drama; and like him she holds up for our inspection a whole class of unremarkable people who are seldom noticed in fiction. (p. 39)
Bobbie Ann Mason is wonderfully even-handed and nonjudgmental in the handling of her characters, male as well as female. They are what they are, she seems to say, as restless women strain against the confines of marriage, as restless men take off in pickup trucks for Texas or the Rockies, leaving their women stuck with more rent than they can afford to pay. Her interest in them is both friendly and detached—and it extends to cats and ancient, ailing dogs … and to mechanical objects as well: an injured truck-driver's rig "sits in the backyard, like a gigantic bird that has flown home to roost." She avoids extended descriptions, depending upon a few exactly observed details to establish her situations and scenes.
Individually effective as they are, there is a degree of sameness to the stories read as a collection. This is due partly to the...
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[Shiloh and Other Stories] has been treated to a remarkable amount of favorable critical attention for a first collection, and indeed [Mason's] appeal is undeniable. The first lines pull you in with an easy, quirky rhythm: "The former astronaut claims that walking on the moon was nothing, compared to walking with Jesus." Every story is rich with surface details, little pleasures and pains captured absolutely, of the everyday life of future shock in the provinces. Mason has really heard people speak the way her characters speak, and she has certainly watched the TV shows they watch.
When you turn the page, however, her people vanish, because their stories have no emotional gravity. Mason establishes an energetic comic distance, and then ends the stories with a little lurch of the heart, a closeness that seems tacked on. In "Old Things," for example, Mason presents Cleo, a middle-aged Kentucky widow, from many angles. Cleo is a likable person who lives in a small house where the TV is almost always on. Her daughter Linda, who has left her husband, has moved in, along with her two young children. The kids are making a mess of the place, and Cleo can't believe Linda's husband has mistreated her: "It's as if she had been told some wild tale about outer space, like something on a TV show." She's uncomfortable about the way Linda seems to be enjoying her life now. It's all so newfangled the way people just do what they want....
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Each story [in Shiloh] … is a recreation of life, in all its quaint, baffling, funny, pathetic inconsequentiality, in one small, obscure corner of the world. Few of her English readers will ever have visited the towns that she describes, few are likely to do so. But it is probable that they will retain the impression that they have made a visit, in some other existence or in a dream, so intense is her evocation….
One of Miss Mason's constant themes is the manner in which, with no decisive snap of the thread, human relationships become unravelled. In some instances, they remain that way; in others, the fabric knits up again, with no apparent effort by either of the parties. In the title story, 'Shiloh', for example, a truck-driver, out of work after an accident, observes, through a haze of marijuana smoke, how his tough, independent wife is slowly receding from him, in a new-found interest first in body-building and then in English composition. When he takes her to the Civil War battlefield of Shiloh, she, in effect, vanishes out of sight, leaving him with the desolating sense that, just as he has never understood the inner workings of history that erupted in so much carnage, so he has never understood the inner workings of the marriage that is now causing his own living death.
Again, in 'Still Life with Watermelon', a wife, whose husband has inexplicably taken off for Texas with a buddy—is the buddy...
(The entire section is 535 words.)