Doris Betts Essay - Betts, Doris (Vol. 6)

Doris June Waugh

Betts, Doris (Vol. 6)

Betts, Doris 1932–

Ms Betts, an American, writes short stories and novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Doris Betts' tales [in Beasts of the Southern Wild & Other Stories] are infiltrated with every manner of strange "beasts"—from deer and birds and spiders to magical wolves out of a Twelfth-Century Bestiary. But her most predominant "beasts" are versions of People in this land—the anguished and the deformed, the neurotic and the insane, people ravished by dreams, people supposedly dead, and even one a flittering, jealous ghost. The evidence appears again and again: the lonely, the life-starved, people abandoned in a humdrum family, adhering to a lackluster Baptist or Revivalist faith, or caught in the work-ethic of a busy-busy materialist and everyday society are cornered like rats, and, one way or another, become creatures pacing and perishing in a spiritless zoo. Some abandon their art, or, rather, their painting becomes slightly abstract, lunatic, and obtuse. Some retreat into specialized private worlds of near-hallucination, some become lesbians or recluses, while many madden or, choked full with cancer, consummately die.

In the midst of this tumult of human suffering, Betts can and does frequently strike a romantic note, and Beasts of the Southern Wild often dramatizes the potential redeeming powers of love. (p. 110)

But Doris Betts is not merely the moon-blanched romantic, crying up the opiate of love. One of her strongest features is an integrity and unsentimental objectivity that recognizes coldly—and fully—that love is merely a "possibility," by no manner or means a donnee in life…. [The] hardheaded recognition—that life can be, must be, an amalgam of treasure and toxin—lies at the heart of Mrs. Betts' fictive worlds. Mrs. Betts perceives most clearly that, all too often, real lives, like trees in Oklahoma, "give out"—turn barren or deadly or dry. Large numbers of her people have to settle for a partial salvation in sheer daydreaming; it is the nearest and often the only route they will ever find in life of "getting by." At times, her vivid sense of dream or of vision strains toward the luxuriant fancies and inventions of a Wallace Stevens.

Heatedly related to such prescriptions for the necessity of love and of the inner life is a surprising reliance upon the here-and-now, the present, and, only possibly, the future. "You Can't Go Home Again" is distinctively not one of Doris Betts' themes; rather, her creations insist that you Must Not Go Home Again; you must look forward, keep moving, progress. (p. 111)

Certainly, one of Betts' best stories is the shortest, "Hitchhiker." It comes closest to portraying most in the fewest possible and forceful scenes. Rose Marie Duffy, hating the tedium of a lonely life, boring rounds of parties, and staggering ennui as a typist at the Research Company, one day, while proceeding to the office, suddenly turns off a bridge and ludicrously drives her car downriver. At nightfall, she is picked up on a sandbar by a seemingly commonplace fisherman in a boat. But within moments he ominously appears to be Fisher of Men, a veritable Charon upon the Styx, as they roar past a village, "… and on both sides the towns and cities of the earth drove by"…. Here, Mrs. Betts approaches both the comic and the surreal, Thurber's lumpish Loser mated to Kafka's mantic Suicidal Man. The dominant image of the river, the shifts in seriousness and in imagery, the bouts with the absurd—all tend to give the story a genial but disturbing power. Poor Rose Marie never found love or even much of life in her riverbed dreaming; but, win or lose, as with so many characters and in so many of Doris Betts' interesting stories, Rose Marie had been "driven" enough by life; then, in the veering of a moment, she at last determined precisely where she was going and, taking a firm grip upon the wheel, turned about and drove there—in a hurry. Beastly? Yes, assuredly. But with fine touches of the Southern Wild. (pp. 112-13)

John R. Clark, in Carolina Quarterly (© copyright 1974 Carolina Quarterly), Spring, 1974.

Rural or small-town Piedmont people undergoing relatively non-exceptional experiences are the subjects of most of Miss Betts's stories: a homely girl on a bus, a hitchhiker with a hangover, a young woman having a baby or bringing a father home from hospital to die of cancer, a small boy with a neurotic mother. The author's strength lies in her direct and powerful treatment of such materials. I don't know many writers with as much controlled power, with such ability to recognize the significant in the commonplace and to depict it with such tough, naked, unadorned simplicity. Her people come to life with a few vivid, beautifully selective strokes: the sister in the Jesuit hospital of "Still Life with Fruit" ("You're very hairy…. All beautiful women are hairy. We had a movie star here once … and you could have combed her into ringlets") is only one example out of many. And the title story, half-straight, half-fantasy, is as powerful a depiction of husband/wife black/white hostility-attraction-revulsion any reader is likely to encounter. (p. 721)

William Peden, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Fall, 1974.