An unfortunate mixed-genre collection of bad essays, competent short stories and an edited transcript of a dull conversation meant to honor the author of A Lesson Before Dying (1993).
The editors of this mess should have listened to Gaines when, as they inform us in their windy introduction, he said he was “not really enthusiastic” about the idea. But the editors wanted to pay him tribute (Gaines was retiring from the Univ. of Louisiana at Lafayette), and they wanted to assemble pieces that had either not been published or had appeared in journals with limited circulation. The six essays appear, mostly, to be edited versions of talks Gaines gave about his books when they were initially released. The pieces have an informality about them—an appealing conversational tone. But they are very repetitive. He tells the same anecdotes about his Southern boyhood, his love of reading, his difficulties with his first novel, the influences of music—jazz, the blues, some classical pieces—his attempts to capture his characters’ voices. Each essay has its moments, but each is stitched together with the same pale threads. Among the five stories is a dazzler, “Mary Louise,” that describes the agony of epiphany as the eponymous protagonist realizes her girlhood dream has been just that. Two of the other tales (“Boy in the Double-Breasted Suit” and “My Grandpa and the Haint”) are also very good and show in colorful fashion the influences of Faulkner and the blues that Gaines discusses elsewhere (several times). “The Turtles,” a very early story, has principally biographical significance for those interested in Gaines’s development. The long interview (from 2002) that closes the volume is just plain embarrassing (for the editors). Gaines’s two interlocutors seem more interested in recording their own comments about writing and literature and influence than in highlighting the author’s. He confesses, for example, no knowledge or interest in rap and hip-hop; they discuss the subjects anyway.
Gaines’s fiction glistens. The rest of the book, a fault of its editors, does not.