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
ISBN: 0-8135-1926-8
Page count: 186pp
Publisher: Rutgers Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1992