Jayne Anne Phillips Short Fiction Analysis
Jayne Anne Phillips’s writing style in her short fiction varies in person and in tone. For example, in “How Mickey Made It” (first published in Rolling Stone, on February 5, 1981), the writing style suggests the rambling monologue that results from hearing only one side of a conversation. Phillips originally started her writing career as a poet, an influence that critics contend is apparent in her prose.
Many of Phillips’s stories track the modern pursuit of happiness, which seems, for the most part, to be an unsuccessful quest: The main characters in stories such as “Fast Lanes” (first published in Granta: More Dirt: The New American Fiction, in the fall of 1986) and “Bess” (first published in Esquire, in August of 1984) are all trying to get away from their homes and families, either physically or mentally. The action often takes place around the time of the Vietnam War or soon thereafter. In “Blue Moon,” the protagonist’s younger brother, Billy, is told to improve his school grades, with his mother pleading, “Don’t you know you’ll get drafted? Vietnam is on the news every night now.”
Many of Phillips’s stories are drawn from observations made while traveling, during a period in the 1970’s that one critic called “her rootless days on the road” wandering from West Virginia to California and back again. “Fast Lanes” concerns the travels of a pair of post-Vietnam era “dropouts,” one a self-described “hippie carpenter” named Thurman and the other an unnamed, twenty-three-year-old cocaine addict who cannot face her addiction—or the consequences of her self-destructive behavior. During a conversation about their respective pasts, Thurman says about “the old days”:People weren’t stupid; they just didn’t worry. The war was over, no one was getting drafted. The girls had birth control pills and everything was chummy.
Yet, he then negates this lotus-land vision with a cynical “Ha.”
Phillips’s stories concentrate on the illusiveness of the sunny American Dream. Thurman’s brother Barnes is killed in Vietnam, but his parents refuse to accept it; instead, his father believes that his eldest son’s death was caused by drugs because he “wouldn’t have died otherwise, he was an athlete.” His mother, meanwhile, finds solace in alcohol, preferring to believe that Barnes is still alive, although she is upset that he never calls or writes.
Phillips does not accept “true love” as the panacea to these ills. In “Fast Lanes,” the main character’s addiction or self-destructive tendencies are too strong to allow her to accept healing in the form of love from Thurman. In “Blue Moon,” the protagonist’s mother is forever soured on football—she will not allow her son to play for the school team—when her first real love dies of a heart attack after a football game. Her marriage (to someone she clearly considers second best) disintegrates through the years, and she tries to break up her son’s love affair with an “unsuitable” girl.
In “Bess,” true love has become forbidden love, as it exists between a brother and a sister. It is not necessarily an incestuous love,...
(The entire section is 1331 words.)