Ellen Gilchrist is good company. She is the sort of raconteur one would like to have along on a boring automobile trip or a slow afternoon at the beach. Her tone is intimate—there is an “I really should not be telling you this” sound to the prose—and her material is so entertaining as to be almost gossipy. She presents the details of her stories in a casual, offhand manner, often mentioning in passing a character whom she develops more fully in a later piece. By the end of Victory over Japan, a collection of Gilchrist’s stories which won the 1984 American Book Award for Fiction, the reader has come to know and delight in an extended family of mostly female cousins and their friends, Southerners all, tales of whose outrageous antics Gilchrist recounts with energy and wit.
The women in Victory over Japan are a richly varied assortment, interested in men and more interested in themselves. Gilchrist’s single characters long to be both thin and married; they fantasize about the “good girls [who] press their elegant rib cages against their beautiful rich athletic husbands.” Her married women are dissatisfied too. Their marriages provide economic security, but their emotional confinement is sometimes destructive of sanity. The state hospital in Mandeville, otherwise known as the “Loony Bin,” looms large in the minds of Gilchrist’s restless protagonists. In two of her stories, women are physically confined by their husbands and psychiatrists, and one narrator alludes darkly to a woman “that ended up in Mandeville forever because she wouldn’t be a proper wife.” This treatment of the enclosure and confinement of women in marriage places Gilchrist squarely in an important tradition in women’s writing, a tradition represented by such works as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1899). Unlike Gilman’s protagonist, however, Gilchrist’s women are hardly victims. There is a heroic vitality in her females and not a trace of guilt or shame. As one of her most vivid characters, Nora Jane Whittington, says, “I’ve never been ashamed of anything I’ve done in my life and I’m not about to start being ashamed now.”
Nora Jane is one of several characters who appear in more than one story. Her adventures in earlier volumes of Gilchrist’s work are summarized in the author’s note to the “Nora Jane” section of the present collection. A practical nineteen-year-old hedonist who has recently been graduated from the Academy of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in New Orleans, Nora Jane is involved with two men, either of whom may be the father of the twins she is carrying. Her boyfriend Sandy is tied up in a Laetrile scam with a wealthy older woman who is always saying, “Energy. That’s all. There’s nothing else.” The other paternity candidate is a bookstore owner who gives Nora Jane a baby-blue convertible and seduces her with quotations from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Nora Jane has decided to marry neither of these unreliable specimens; she plans instead to get a job in a day-care center where she can support herself and take care of her babies all at the same time. The reader last sees the pregnant Nora Jane in a station wagon on the Golden Gate Bridge; trapped there by an earthquake and awaiting rescue by the Coast Guard, she is comforting a hungry, frightened kindergarten car pool with her angelic singing.
The other memorable women in Victory over Japan are Rhoda and Crystal. Rhoda figures in the three stories that begin the book. Her father is the brother of Crystal’s father, and, although the reader never sees the cousins together, it is clear that they are cast in the same mold. Spoiled, rebellious, and sensuous, Rhoda and Crystal stop at nothing to assuage their curiosity or to get what they want. As a third grader, in the collection’s title story, Rhoda insists on befriending and then interviewing for the school newspaper a shy, tearful classmate who is undergoing treatment for rabies. Rhoda conflates these events with collecting newspapers for the war effort and with her memories of family arguments, her discerning naïveté offering a distorted but recognizable view of adult preoccupations. As an adolescent, in “Music,” Rhoda is given to dramatic statements and grand gestures. She flaunts her disbelief in God, smokes Lucky Strikes to defy her parents, reads Dorothy Parker, and longs to lose her virginity; she is, as Gilchrist puts it, at “a holy and terrible age, and her desire for beauty and romance drove her all day long and pursued her if she slept.” In the third Rhoda story, called “The Lower Garden District Free Gravity Mule Blight or Rhoda, a Fable,” Rhoda is in her mid-thirties, in the process of divorcing her rich, boring husband and still in search of adventure. She finds it this time in her seduction of Earl Treadway, a black insurance agent with whose company Rhoda has filed a fraudulent claim. In this story, Gilchrist subtly reveals both Rhoda’s and Earl’s motives, arising from the long and sordid history of Southern racism, as they maneuver each other into bed.