BOOKS & THE CULTURE Writing from Observation BY SARA STEVENSON ALLIGATOR DANCE: STORIES BY JANET PEERY. 208 pp. Dallas: SMU Press. Hardback $22.50, paper $10.95. alp ANET PEERY’S SHORT STORIES remind me of why I gave up trying to write fiction. As much as I steered my stories away, they kept tugging back towards autobiography. Or if I did occasionally break loose from my journal dependency, the voice in my fiction sounded too much like my real voice on a tape recorderdifferent yet embarrassingly familiar. However, in each of Janet Peery’s 10 stories, she has created a different voice: retired “snowbirds” in South Padre to a pre-adolescent girl in Milwaukee, a white boy bigot in the 1950s, a Mexican maid’s daughter in the Valley. She conjures these voices with such ease and authenticity that the reader is at times fooled out of the awareness of reading. Perhaps this is why Alligator Dance was recommended for summer reading by The New York Times Book Reviewits fine quality, eclectic menu. Occasionally, Peery serves up a leftover place name or setting from one story to another, but the recurrence merely reminds us that one author binds these disparate stories together. As a writer, Peery’s versatility is almost as startling as her consistent talent. And while a handful of her stories are outstanding, all are pleasing. In “Alligator Dance” the fourth-grade narrator describes her fascination/repulsion towards social outcast Lonnie Olson. Peery accurately captures latent childhood sexuality: mystery, ignorance, imagination, shame, desire and a sense of remembering something long ago lost but urgent. In storytelling technique used throughout the collection, Peery partially reveals her story’s conclusion in the first paragraph and then goes back to fill in. She ends the first paragraph about Lonnie Olson: His hair was white-blond, .flyaway and dry as the flaxweed in the ditch behind the Milwaukee Transit Authority bus Sara Stevenson teaches English at St. Michael’s Academy in Austin. barn where he caught me many afternoons as I walked home in my saddle shoes, white anklets, plaid tie-back dresses. By the time the story ends, with the narrator and Lonnie pumping the palms of their hands so that the ink drawings there of a naked man and lady are “having sex,” Peery has dredged the reader’s early sexual memories. Finally I brought the picture to my mouth, tasted ink and salt and dirt and skin that tasted suddenly like something I had just remembered, something I had already known. I rubbed at the damp spot on my hand until the blue began to smudge, to blend into the dirt, to fade until the spot became so faint that if anyone had noticed, I could have said it was a bruise. “South Padre,” the opening story, tells of Jesse, a retired Oklahoma farmer who buys an Airstream trailer and takes his wife with him to winter in South Texas. Jesse has an affair with a Greek woman who owns a bar, but it is his plain wife of many years, Ida Grace, who undergoes a more genuine transformation. Anticipating her change, Ida Grace muses: Then she closed the door, knowing what was behind it. She knew the mother she had been, the daughter, sister, friend and wife. She saw herself through many eyes, the way she’d moved through days and years, this to one, that to another, hollow, though, outside herself: see me rocking, hear this laughter, now I’m rolling pie crust; scattered, no one thing to all, nothing to herself She had loved them all, she thought, these people, in her way. But what was that, her way? She wondered what things she’d done for love, what out of duty, and the answer horrified her. She spent one last, long night in the lawn chair under the trailer’s awning, her head lolled back, stunned, immobile in the humid breeze. When the sun came up she rose, her face saltdrawn, exhausted, but forever done with regret. Jesse’s lover suddenly replaces him. Ida Grace’s inner discovery, while lying half in and half out of the waves, gives her back herself so thoroughly that, out of envy, Jesse unplugs the trailer and drives back over the bridge, which “seemed like the rearing back of a huge brontosaurus,” while Ida Grace sleeps inside. Except for an overdone description of Jesse’s culminating catharsis, the story succeeds. “Mountains, Road, the Tops of Trees” is narrated by an older woman reminiscing about her life and how it led to her common-law husband of 40 years. The narrator Lou sounds like Taylor Greer of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Treesa very down-home, wise, observant, poetic country bumpkin. Lou’s family leaves Arkansas for California in the ’40s because her sister looks like Betty Grable and is practicing to be a movie star. Daddy thought she had something, though, and he figured to cash in on it, so he packed us in the car and hauled us out west, Mama in the front seat pregnant with number seven and us all in the back, hot as popcorn and fighting like cats, everything we owned bumping along behind us in a two-wheeled trailer Daddy bought for a dollar… Although Samson Cloud, a huge, winemaking and drinking, baptizing, Christian Indian falls flat as a character, the narrator is so open-hearted, original and entertaining that the story works, down to the gorgeous ending: I stood there waiting, wondering if he’d gone past caring, but then his hands were on my shoulders, strong again, and warm. He dipped us down together, under to the quiet where my throat filled wide with everything, the words again, his name, that thing in me that wouldn’t budge, and I choked them back and swallowed, and then we drew each other up, gasping, me all crying and there we were, two naked, holy people with the water running off us, and it made us look so serious, so old and new and sorry, so wet and stubborn-foolish we just had to laugh, for everything we ever did, for gladness and the maybehope of heaven. In order to get a sense of Peery’s chameleon-like narration skills, contrast 16 SEPTEMBER 16, 1994
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