GRASSLANDS by Jonathan Gillman


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Twenty-three interrelated stories, set near the Missouri River in a small South Dakota town, tell the story of a lonely woman who has lost nearly everyone. Gillman, a playwright, fashions a first book that rings true with pathos and evocative, unsentimental dialogue. The pieces, each with a date attached, range from 1957 to '89, but the order has more to do with memory than with chronology. In ""Bones"" (1980), we meet Mavis, who, here, visits Ed to get some bones so that she can clang them together and make a kind of music as a distraction against night terror. Framed by those bones, the rest of the stories chronicle what Mavis has come to: several, notably ""Stones on a Hill"" (1979) and the lovely ""Shakespeare by Phone"" (1978) deal with Mavis's never-ending grief over the death of husband Nate. In ""Carny Man"" (1969), Mavis meets Nate at a carnival, and he gives up the carny life to settle down. Mavis's daughter Alice, on the other hand, runs off with a carnival some years after Nate's death, and ""Carny"" (1987) sketches out Mavis's forlorn visit to that same carnival a year later, where she looks without luck for Alice. The ironic contrast between mother and daughter--one finding a husband at the carnival to settle with, the other escaping from boredom through the same venue--is a bit forced, but mostly Gillman successfully writes of everyday pleasures and lasting heartbreak from a woman's point of view. Finally, ""Midsummer's Night"" gives Mavis the only solace she can receive--by allowing her to take ""two white shank bones from beside the bed"" and ""Clank clank"" them together. A small auspicious triumph, from a writer whose ear is almost unerring and whose empathy seldom flags.

Pub Date: Feb. 10th, 1993
Page count: 186pp
Publisher: Rutgers Univ. Press