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March's Book
Home and Beyond
edited by Morris Allen Grubbs

Bill:
Kentucky writers have produced a wealth of beautifully crafted short stories for many years. Now Morris Grubbs brings us vintage classics, little-known gems, and stunning debuts in a collection of 40 stories he has entitled Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories. bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
Well, I don’t know if I’ve ever said this before, but here goes: Four years into the bookclub, and I’ve never been prouder to be a Kentuckian. [jokingly, to himself] Why, Bill, are you proud to be a Kentuckian?

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
Because of all of this writing and all of these authors and the way it’s all put together; and I think the other thing is that it allows us to share with each other on the bookclub as well as our viewers and all people all over Kentucky, and all over the world, hopefully, what we have here in Kentucky and how it’s celebrated in this book. So. I just wanted to say that, and that’s all I’m going to say.

[Everyone laughs]

Gabrielle:
It really was a great book. I think Jonathan was talking before we got started about how you can pick up at any one point and dive into a story, and because it’s a short story ... It’s just a lot of variety and really great works of writing. It was really enjoyable to read.

Dava:
Then there is no weak link at all. I just ... I enjoyed every single story I read, and that’s very impressive for any collection of short stories.

Gabrielle:
Yeah. What was your favorite?

Dava:
Oh, oh. I loved “Bare Bones.”

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dava:
It’s just maybe I can relate to it a little more because I am a woman myself. But I actually wanted to read a passage from there, and I am going to because I just—I love that story.

[Everyone laughs]

Dava:
And in this story there is a lady named Lilly, and she has been divorced for about a year now, and she has a son, and she leads a very plush life, and really divorce was up to her to begin with. So for a while she was very insensitive to the divorce and how it made her feel. But now she is coming to terms with the fact that she is alone, and this is hitting her very hard. So at the end, Sallie Bingham, who is the author, writes the final paragraph, and it’s just great. I have to share:

“After a while a few words formed in the roaring void of her mind. I am twenty-six, she thought, and I am divorced, and I have a child. She had never added it up before, and the word seemed cumbersome and strange. I am twenty-six, and I am divorced, and I have a child. Is that all? she cried in anguish. And the answer came back pedantically, You are twenty-six, and you are divorced, and you have a child. It was so strange, so small and hopeless—a revelation, yet small and hopeless. She turned the three facts over and over, like three pebbles in her head. They were cool and solid and round, and she did not know what she would find to do with them. But they were—they existed; and suddenly she felt the weight of her life, of herself, laid upon bare bones.”

Is it great?

Gabrielle:
Great ending.

Bill:
Yeah, isn’t it? One of the examples, and I think there are so many others ... You started with a favorite story. What was yours?

Gabrielle:
Uh, I had a lot. So it’s going to be hard to narrow it down. I think the one that I got a lot of pleasure out of was “Fur in the Hickory” ...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
... with the growing son and his father going hunting and his grandfather. I think in your family you always have someone, you know, “back in my day we had to walk 20 miles to school” ...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
... and all of that, and you hear those stories. And you hear a bit of it in this one, and I really enjoyed the grandfather telling him how it used to be, and at the end the little boy, seeing that he didn’t really shoot the squirrel, trying to have him still feel the glory days. So I really liked that.

Bill:
And with both of those examples, authors that I know are well known to a vast number of Kentuckians, but then again the anthology contains Wendell Berry and Robert Penn Warren, and others that we have read on the bookclub, as well as known authors like James Still. But these two authors—Sallie Bingham and Billy C. Clark ...

Gabrielle:
Right.

Bill:
... and so many others that have really not gotten the attention, or maybe they have been in one genre that is not that well established, or they don’t sell a lot, or whatever the reasons may be. I think that Morris Grubbs, who is an assistant English professor at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky, has just presented all of us with a supreme gift that we can carry with us for so long. I just think it’s wonderful.

Dava:
And he divided the book up into sections chronologically, so we have stories that span from 1945 to the present. You just get such a variety. It’s a pleasure to read them, and still it’s really interesting to see how there can be a common thread throughout the stories. I believe in the introduction it’s made mention that Kentucky is a very rooted place. It’s very rooted in tradition and in home and kinfolk, and you can see that in these stories. And I noticed in almost every collection of Kentucky stories ... I mean, it’s something that’s almost inescapable: Someone feels a pull, a certain pull about the state, and you can see that in here, too. But there are definitely other stories you could talk about.

Bill:
How many times on the bookclub have we talked about sense of place?

Dava:
Uh huh.

Bill:
And we always think, when we discuss or read Wendell Berry, especially, and others that we are reading about, the sense of place ... And in these stories it seems to almost be on the marquee that it’s about home and family.

Jonathan:
A lot of the books we’ve talked about over the last year or two by Kentucky authors have concerned the fact that the narrator or the main character goes away ...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
... and then thinks about home a lot when they are away, and then goes home. Harriette Arnow and Fenton Johnson, as they go away and as they come back, for a brief visit or else permanently, they try to think about what the meaning of home is. And I think many of these stories are examining what is the meaning of home for some people. For some characters in these stories, home is actually prison. Home is a difficult marriage; home is a place where they don’t feel any freedom whatsoever. And that’s one of the reasons why many of the characters leave: because they do feel hemmed in. And it’s part of growing up, sometimes, to go away. But then ... And we noticed in Clear Springs, the memoir of Bobbie Ann Mason—it was another story about going away and returning. And so I think that it’s a central myth in the book and perhaps, as you suggest, in the whole literature tradition: the myth of departure and return.

I think that we should say that this was inspired by Hal Summer’s book of the 1950s called Kentucky Stories, and Morris Grubbs wanted to return to that. And I think that gave us a selection of short stories up to the 1950s, but going back, you know, sort of trying to amass a whole lot of material now that has been written since then, Grubbs is clearly showing that much of the stuff written is part of the normal tradition.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
And I also welcome, as you were saying, the book and so on. It’s going to make it available for kids in classrooms—especially with this because, in the paperback, then all schools throughout Kentucky can have this and can use this as a resource. Otherwise, I mean all of this stuff that is written that doesn’t somehow get published and, or somehow just, it goes out of print ... It’s wonderful to have it ...

Bill:
Collected.

Jonathan:
... printed and make it part of our canon—part of our sense [of the] important.

Bill:
I had a very brief conversation with Professor Grubbs, Morris Grubbs—and I don’t think this is contained in either the preface; the introduction by Wade Hall, whom we have also read; or the afterword—but Morris Grubbs told me that they began with somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 to 700 short stories, and now we have 40. And to just think, when we start the bookclub every year and look at dozens of titles and have to get it down to 12 ... Wilma, you must have a favorite or two or a comment or three.

Wilma:
As always. Actually I have several favorites. I really do. I marked quite a few that I thought were just excellent stories. I just don’t want us to go too much farther without mentioning Robert Penn Warren’s story “Blackberry Winter.” And, of course, he’s ... Of all the authors, even though some of them are very well known, of course Robert Penn Warren is the best known of the authors in this collection. But “Blackberry Winter” is a wonderful story told through the eyes of a young boy. He is 9 years old, and he even says at the beginning—and it’s a nice beginning, in that it’s his mother who says that it’s blackberry winter; it has turned cold in June—and the boy says, you know, when you are 9 years old, there are certain rules in life you know about, and one is that in June you can go barefoot anytime you want. And so she is saying, no, you can’t go barefoot. And actually it’s a good beginning for the entire idea that everything in his life that day changes. Nothing is actually what it should have been. They live on a river. And if you have never lived in a town on a large river, you take the river for granted. It gives you a lot of things. It gives you your water, recreation, transportation, and so on. But it does not play by the rules. And when it floods, it just floods, and it destroys everything that you were thinking might have been stable. So the river has flooded, and he sees that several things have changed. There is a neighbor of theirs, actually farm workers, and their house has always been pristine, and he, the boy, even goes to her house, and all this debris has washed up out from under her house, and it’s very ugly. He also sees [that] because she is sick, she slaps her son very hard, and he’s shocked at that. He’s never seen that.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
There is also a man who has been very well dressed at some point in his life and still has these clothes, but he’s become a vagabond and is trying to find work. Actually he is the pivotal part of the story. The boy wants to know what happened to that man. Why does he have those good clothes and still has to—what used to be good clothes; they are not work clothes at all. And of course the man is very bitter. The boy follows him and wants to know, at the end of the story, he wants some answers because the day has been so disruptive, and he wants answers. And, of course, the man tells him not to follow him anymore, and at the end he says, “I have been following him for years.” Because the boy is telling a flashback: I have been following him for years. In other words, trying to figure out what are the rules in life, what has happened to this man, and what does that mean in my life? So it is a really great story.

Bill:
Oh, I think ...

Wilma:
I’m sorry I went on and on about it.

Bill:
No, no, no.

Wilma:
But it is just extremely well done.

Bill:
I think Robert Penn Warren does such an excellent job of making you, the reader, wonder and question the same things that the little boy is asking. Just make a supposition here: What do you think [about] where he came from and all of that? I mean, all of a sudden he is walking up toward the house, and he’s a stranger, and the little boy is alarmed somewhat, and his mother asks him if he needs work and that sort of thing.

Wilma:
I don’t think it matters. At that period of time there would have been people who had fallen on bad ...

Bill:
Hard times.

Wilma:
... times, hard times. And he just didn’t have the work clothes. He wasn’t a worker. You know two things: He had to have work—he had to beg for work—and yet he was disdainful about the work after that. So I don’t know that it matters to me where he has been. It’s just a guy having hard luck.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
One thing, also, I liked in this story, too. The flood has ... I think this is typical, if you have ever been in a town that has flooded. Everybody goes down to the river to look at the flood.

Bill:
Yeah.

Wilma:
And so all of the townspeople are down there looking at the flood, and a cow has drowned.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
It’s floating down the river, and this is very important, actually. You know the river really didn’t care. Sometimes the dead cow was upside down; sometimes it was head up; sometimes the feet were up. But it didn’t matter. But they were all wondering, when the cow, the dead cow, got to the bridge, if it would hang on the bridge or pass under the bridge. And it hung on the bridge. But the idea is that we are just not in control. In other words, it’s just circumstances that direct our lives. And just like the cow ... The cow got hung up. It could have just as easily gone through the bridge [laughs] and on out to sea, I guess. I don’t know. I think that Robert Penn Warren, in his novels, does the same thing. He is very interested in two people starting out the same way [and] how circumstances might split them off and make them different. So that’s in the story, too. I just ... It’s a great story.

Bill:
I smile not so much at the cow and that whole scene, but the way the entire bridge was and the people watching and standing and talking and conversing, and how ... That’s when we were introduced to the little boy’s father.

Wilma:
Yes.

Bill:
When he was on the horse and almost like a John Wayne-ish type of character that the little boy just admired by looking up in that tall saddle.

Wilma:
That’s part of the story, too. The only stable things here for him is his very stable mother and his very stable father, and they are stable that day. But we find out they both die before he reaches manhood.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
So even that part of his life, even what was very stable that day when other things were changing, even ... We find out that wasn’t truly stable. He had no idea.

Bill:
And again, what’s marvelous about this: We just discussed an epic novel in a short story of, what, 15 or 20 pages?

Wilma:
That’s right; that’s exactly right.

Bill:
I didn’t count. And that’s only one; now we only have 39 more to go.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
What’s another favorite? Let’s do that. I think we need to talk about some of the stories, and the ones that you thought were best written, and why or maybe how they do speak to this sense of place and home and homeland.

Jonathan:
Well, by the way, you mentioned a novel in a short space. I think it’s wonderful to read these and be reminded of what a great genre the short story is. I mean, the novel is the most popular genre today; everyone reads novels. But the short story is often just a miniature masterpiece, isn’t it? And the writer has to put enough information in there in order for you to understand what’s happening, and it’s just so short. I often wonder how they decide when it’s over. And often many of these stories end beautifully, you know; they end in such a way as to make you think, oh, yes. Or, you know, it ends after a moment of perception, a moment of illumination. And I’m thinking of the ending of “The Petrified Woman” by Caroline Gordon. But you know, this is told from the perspective of a little girl. She goes with her family to Mammoth Cave every year, or every few years, for a family reunion. It’s really a study about what a family means. Many of these family members mean nothing to her. She doesn’t know them at all. And one of the men, her cousin, becomes alcoholic, and he splits up with his wife—really in front of the little girl. And she doesn’t actually know what’s happening, but just by the way she is describing it, you can see what’s happening, and then at the end she revisits. She comes into the present tense and says, that was a long time ago. And then you realize it was all just memory. Another thing I liked: They are based on memories of something that happened long ago, and it is now being reconsidered by the speaker, and maybe they are learning something. So do you think that ... Are these stories that you think are really about a learning experience? Because in terms of plot, sometimes nothing much happens. It’s just more a question of a character learning something or seeing something in a different light.

Dava:
I think that is what characterizes a short story the most: that lots of time plot isn’t the main focus. It’s that someone comes to an epiphany of some sort. And I really enjoyed this. Almost all the stories have something to do like that in it. Many times the person is realizing the obvious. And that’s what makes it such a good story—like in “Bypass,” Earl finally realizes his marriage is just not doing much.

Bill:
Not going like ...

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
That was a whole different ...

Dava:
Kind of idling.

Jonathan:
It’s a story.

Bill:
Yeah.

Dava:
But I mean still, it’s a good story.

[Everyone talks at once]

Dava:
... Koger does such a good job showing how a person will think, and you know, it’s just so humorous. And he talks about how he has two stepdaughters, Kim and Carrie, and it gives a description:

“They giggle and poke each other whenever Earl is in the same room. He has never been a religious man, but he’s a grateful one. He gives thanks every night that those girls have never asked to call him ‘Daddy.’”

[Everyone laughs]

Dava:
There are a lot of stories like that.

Jonathan:
It’s the most bitter, cynical story of them all, I think. And here is a place where the home and the family ...

Dava:
Love it.

Jonathan:
... is imprisoning. He describes his wife ... It’s full of these wonderful old phrases that just depict somebody in a very cutting way. There is this description of his wife:

“She is still a good-looking woman, but at thirty-eight, she’s beginning to get that look that says, ‘I bite.’”

[Everyone laughs]

Jonathan:
It’s very satirical, you know.

Wilma:
Her phrasing was excellent in that, and the main character almost becomes a Walter Mitty character. I mean, he almost has a little life of his own inside his head, and he’s carrying this chicken around trying to get somebody to fry it for him.

Bill:
I kind of felt sorry for him.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
The guy wanted some fried chicken.

Wilma:
Well, that’s the point. He fried his own. You know, at the very end, he was so upset ...

Jonathan:
I think all he ever ate was fried chicken.

Wilma:
Yeah.

[Everyone talks at once]

Jonathan:
But even his friends, they tried all different fried chicken.

Bill:
But ... but, Jonathan ...

Jonathan:
... wasn’t his favorite.

[Everyone talks at once]

Dava:
Yeah.

Bill:
You know, in the South ... I don’t know what kind of fried chicken they have in Ireland ...

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
But you know ...

Jonathan:
Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Bill:
That was the point.

Jonathan:
The fried chicken he was going to have was going to be fried in rat droppings.

[Everyone laughs]

Jonathan:
Are you saying that’s what gives it the flavor?

Dava:
Oh, no. That’s the Colonel’s secret, right there.

Wilma:
And he finally picks up the skillet himself, and he’s going to fry his own chicken—and it has to be spoiled by the time he has carried it around for six hours—but he has to dump the rat droppings out of the skillet before he can fry it. He says—and I don’t have it right now, but—he says something like “There is something wrong in this house.”

[Everyone talks at once]

Bill:
... got into the car, you know. And it had bled on the seat.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
He had to point that out to somebody.

Wilma:
That was his sister. She says it looks like a chicken has died here, and he says it has.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
And she was a pitiful character.

Wilma:
I liked his sister; yeah.

Bill:
There was so much emotion, such raw emotion. We are laughing at it, but it was sad. And you said caustic.

Jonathan:
Very bleak, I thought.

Bill:
Yes, it was.

Jonathan:
If you contrast that with Wendell Berry’s story, which was one of his very affirming ... The story—which was very like Memory of Old Jack insofar as it was about an old man dying and his memory—but here it’s so affirming. And the home place is the work place, and it’s a place of continuity, and death is a part of the natural process. I like the way that story broke away from this conflict between home and beyond, because in that story—the title is “That Distant Land”—in that story, “that distant land” was actually not somewhere away from home but was actually in the home place. That distant land was what the field looks like after you have plowed it. It’s getting to the other side so that something far away was actually at home. And I thought that was a very clever way of doing it. And of course it’s a classic Wendell Berry notion: that home is good and home is where you should stay.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
But that was such an affirmative and wholesome story, and this was so bleak and cynical.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
But I think that, you know, the editors did a great job of showing varieties of tone, ups and downs.

Bill:
Yes.

Jonathan:
You know, different ...

Gabrielle:
Authors that I hadn’t heard of or hadn’t read their words before. I liked the small little bio at the beginning of each of the stories.

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
Isn’t that so well done?

Wilma:
That was good.

Gabrielle:
And so I really like this author, so now what else have they written? So I can go and read those as well.

Bill:
Yeah. Well, I think Morris Grubbs would want us to point out that one of his—in fact he became the assistant editor on this project—was at that time in school at Lindsey Wilson. His name is Grant Young, and he was responsible for a lot of that writing, along with others, along with Morris, who wrote those little capsules, little gems [where] you learn so much about the author and the story and the characters—and all of that just in a very short paragraph or two. It was so nice.

Wilma:
There were a couple of stories here—more than two, probably—that were not Kentucky-connected specifically. One being “Belinda’s World Tour,” which I thought that was a very, very nice story.

Bill:
Who wrote that?

Wilma:
And the author, Guy Davenport ...

Bill:
Oh sure; yeah.

Wilma:
And he just took a little excerpt from a biography of Kafka that Kafka had written to a girl. He had written a series of postcards to a little girl. And so Guy Davenport takes this idea. He makes up a little girl. She has lost her doll, and somehow Kafka is at her parents’ house that night for dinner, and he writes back to her as if he’s the doll that she’s lost. And it’s several little letters from various countries in the world from the doll, and it’s commentary on the countries that the doll went to, too. And finally the doll gets married at Niagara Falls. And she says, I understand that your parents have bought my sister at the store—brought home my sister from the store—and I’m married now. And so the idea is that she will no longer have to write to her. But it had really nothing at all to do with Kentucky, but it was a very, very delightful, strange, and interesting story.

Jonathan:
Well, it was very whimsical.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
And what was funny about it also was something that made you a little bit uneasy occasionally, because it was trading in so many cultural stereotypes.

Wilma:
Absolutely.

Jonathan:
But it ... You know, what other perspective do you expect from a doll? You know? And it was very funny, I thought. I actually heard him read that aloud ...

Wilma:
Oh, that’s nice.

Jonathan:
... at the University of Kentucky once, and I think hearing a story read really completes it, in a sense. You know, I’d love to hear a reading of many of these stories.

Bill:
Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful?

Jonathan:
A good evening, to hear the authors read many of their works aloud.

Bill:
Great project; that’s good.

Jonathan:
Yes.

Bill:
We will work on that.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
What did you think of “The Fugitive”?

Wilma:
Loved it.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Wilma:
Did you like it, too? I really liked “The Fugitive” a lot.

Bill:
For what reasons?

Wilma:
First of all, it was well written.

Dava:
Yeah.

Wilma:
It was well written to begin with.

Bill:
Yeah.

Wilma:
I found it very humorous, too.

Dava:
It was ironic.

Wilma:
Ironic.

Dava:
When he set out to pick up a girl ...

Wilma:
Then the girl he finally finds is crippled. And so she goes home with him because he’s basically responsible for having wrecked her car. But she is crippled. And then she starts telling him what a pitiful person he is and how horrible his life is, and he starts actually straightening up, strangely enough. But I have heard some people say they didn’t think that was funny. It’s kind of bleak, but I found it ...

Gabrielle:
Kind of bleak, but there is humor ...

Bill:
Oh yeah.

Gabrielle:
... there was humor in it.

Bill:
But I tell you, there are many surprises. First of all that she was paraplegic, and you don’t expect that, and then he does finally think that maybe he is going to clean up his act. He shaves and changes clothes or takes a bath ...

Dava:
He bathes. That’s a big one.

Bill:
... and comes back—and he’s on the sofa, because there is nothing X-rated in this short story at all, except that first mention ...

Wilma:
She takes a butcher knife to bed.

Bill:
Plus she has done that for the time that she’s been with him in this because she thought that he was going to make a move on her. But there is a sadness in that story, too—the way he sort of ends up with his life—but it ends on an up note. I mean, he decides that things are going to look up and get better, and it’s time for him to go buy a new pair of boots and get back to work and that sort of thing.

We don’t have a whole lot of time left. I just want to spend just a minute talking about why sometimes people will say to me, “I’ve never read short stories, and I’m so glad that you introduced me to them.” Why do you think that is? I mean, you have that same sort of reaction from people who haven’t read, or, “This is the first short story collection I’ve read”—that sort of thing. And again, as you were saying, Jonathan, it’s such a wonderful way to introduce yourself to many, many authors. What do you think, Dava?

Dava:
I think short stories are so loaded they take a lot of thought, whereas if you read a novel, sometimes you can read a hundred pages and you have really not over-exerted yourself because they are building up a plot so.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dava:
I mean, it’s a hundred pages, and Johnny has done A, B, C, and D, you know ...

Bill:
Yeah.

Dava:
And really it’s not as taxing, I think. And short stories require a lot of thinking.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
They are not marketed as well.

Dava:
And they are not marketed as well, and most people are lazy.

Wilma:
Yeah, that is part of it. They’re not marketed.

Bill:
They don’t sell as well ...

 

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