Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger

“No person is a cliché. If you actually get to know them (him/her)…there will be many things deep down that are particular to them (each). That’s what I look for.” Lee Smith, interview in the Citizen-Times

The month of May has been declared as National Short Story Month . . . And Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, a book of new and selected stories by Lee Smith, is a perfect way to celebrate. For me, a satisfying short takes a reader on a journey that lasts for only a short time, but the people one meets and the places one visits linger much, much longer.  With that as the criteria, you can sit back and relax with Lee Smith as your literary tour guide.

It's been thirteen years since Smith released a short story collection, and Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger (which, by the way, has nothing at all to do with Jane Austen) was surely worth the wait. Smith's dialogue is spot on, and her narrative voice (in first person p-o-v or third) is as strong as her characters and plots.  In each story, Smith peels back layers of the human psyche in order to expose the absurdity of people and situations, entertaining her readers while enlightening them along the way.

I've been a fan of Smith's writing since her first novel, The Last Day the Dog Bushes Bloomed, and I've enjoyed and admired her work ever since. With Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, Smith has assembled some of the best stories from her previous collections (Cakewalk, Me and My Baby View the Eclipse, and News of the Spirit), and she's included seven new works. As a whole, the theme of "change" is a thread running through each story. In some instances, change has already been inflicted upon the lives of characters and in other stories, change is about to crest. Smith, a true craftsman of the short form, makes all the right decisions in deciding just where and when to start (and end) each piece. She paints with a full palette to flesh out her smart, quirky characters, and she has an incredible gift for dotting the often sad, bittersweet canvas of life with just the right strokes of humor.

In an interview in Indyweek, Smith recently spoke to that point: "I consider myself a realist; I have always tried to tell the truth as I saw it. Paradoxically, I guess, I have found it easier to do this in fiction than in nonfiction. You can make things up and switch facts around to make your points. But a lot of times, the truth is not pretty—it's hard to bear—I guess that's where the humor comes in. We have to have something to lighten the load a little bit, don't we?"

Most of the stories in Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger focus on women - what it means to be a wife, a mother, a daughter, a lover. 
In "House Tour," a woman's home is overtaken by a group of boisterous, Red Hat Society matrons who mistake the woman's house for one included on a neighborhood historic house tour. The unpredictable presence of these ladies (they are hilarious!), who push their way into the woman's home and begin to explore the nooks and crannies, ultimately force the protagonist to contemplate a deeper meaning for her own life.

In other stories in the collection, Smith tackles aging ("Happy Memories Club", "Between the Lines"); how some members in families appear to be helpful when they are actually only catering to their own self-interests ("Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger"); what makes for a long and enduring marriage (the outstanding, "Stevie and Mama"); coping amid unraveling relationships ("Bob, A Dog"); and the power of love ("Ultima Thule," where a hospital worker makes a love connection with a psych ward patient).

Smith is often characterized as a "regional" writer.  But in reading (and savoring) the rich gamut of stories and excellent prose presented in Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, Lee Smith once again proves that her range far exceeds the constraints implied by that label.  Small towns and close-knit communities--and the challenges fraught therein--are cornerstones of her fiction (the majority of her stories take place in the south). However, in Smith's world, small moments have the potential to change lives. And such moments of personal clarity and revelation serve to broaden the scope of Smith's stories as they open out into more universal themes found in the larger, broader world.