A sturdy introduction to the multifaceted work of Kentucky laureate Mason (Nancy Culpepper: Stories, 2006, etc.).
People are always going places they don’t want to go in Mason’s tales. In her lovely novel In Country, it’s a mother traveling, much against her will at first, with her granddaughter and her son’s best friend to the wall in Washington to reckon with the death of her boy in Vietnam: “Mamaw lets loose a stream as loud as a cow’s. This trip is crazy. It reminds Sam of that Chevy Chase movie about a family on vacation, with an old woman tagging along.” In “Shiloh,” the 1982 story that announced Mason’s arrival on the literary scene, it’s a reluctant wife finally giving in to her mother-in-law’s demand that she visit the Tennessee battlefield, where her husband learns that he’s been missing a big part of their story: “History was always just names and dates to him….And the real inner workings of a marriage, like most of history, have escaped him.” Of course, sometimes people do go places they mean to: There’s Paducah, Kentucky, for instance, “a provincial town with a funny name, but here in the western end of the state it was never an inconsequential place.” Whether story or novel, essay or review, Mason’s work is characterized by closely realized detail, sympathy with the players involved, and, usually, sharp but good-natured humor: When a Kentucky girl decides to take a year off from school in the story “Bumblebees” and head off to exotic Lexington, she says, “Look, think of this as junior year abroad, O.K.? Except I won’t be speaking French.” Mason’s reader-friendly appreciation of Mark Twain, a writer she much resembles, also rings absolutely true: “He’s very contemporary, I think, because in his time he saw so far ahead, as if he were looking right at us.”
Admirable in its broad sweep of Mason’s estimable career as a writer and likely as good a gathering as there could be—if, for a fan, too short.