Prolific novelist Smith (On Agate Hill, 2006, etc.) offers 14 stories, most circling issues of class in the contemporary South.
“Bob, A Dog,” about a sweet woman dumped by her educated husband, sets the tone: Highfalutin’ Yankees and earthy Southerners don’t mix well. In “Ultima Thule,” the Dixie-born wife is the transgressor, betraying her oversensitive Northern husband. Not only Yankees but also bourgeois Southerners lack the spirit of Smith’s hardscrabble heroines, who fight constant battles to survive and maintain their dignity. In “Big Girl,” even the arresting authorities sympathize with Dee Ann, who has committed a crime “in the name of love” for a worthless man. Each heroine with bad taste but a heart of gold seems charmingly colorful on her own—readers understand why the businessman in “Intensive Care” sacrifices his respectability for a waitress who offers the joyful love his buttoned-down wife can’t—but lumped together, the women edge toward stereotype. The town of Salt Lick is full of them in “Between the Lines.” The clueless narrator of “The Southern Cross” is too clichéd and lame-brained to take seriously as she describes a weekend cruise with her married boss. And “Fried Chicken,” about a murderer’s pathetic mother, reads like an exercise in politically correct sentimentality. However, Smith can strike deep. In “House Tour,” both Yankee academics and their elderly Southern visitors defy stereotypes and expectations. The previously unpublished “Stevie and Mama” is the volume’s standout. A woman discovers that her husband, the love of her life, may have had an affair years ago. The hard-earned clarity she reaches while deciding whether to confront him is nuanced and true. After this freshly detailed, deeply satisfying work, the cute twist ending of the final story, concerning the widowed Mrs. Darcy and children who should take her more seriously, is quite a letdown.
Always colorful, sometimes predictable and at its best profoundly moving.