I CANNOT TELL A LIE, EXACTLY by Mary Ladd Gavell

I CANNOT TELL A LIE, EXACTLY

and Other Stories
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KIRKUS REVIEW

From Gavell (1919–67), 16 mostly rural stories, many set in the south of Texas where she was born.

Kaye Gibbons calls Gavell’s work “magnificent,” places it in the “ageless, classic grand era” of the American short story and declares its life-blood to come from its use of “our regional language.” It’s true that the pieces—all perfectly honed—do evoke the classic tones of, say, Eudora Welty or Katherine Anne Porter. But at the same time they’re often thin to the point of anemia or familiar enough to seem more antique than classic. At her best, Gavell is very good, as in “The Rotifer” (included in The Best American Short Stories for 1968 and in the best of the century in 2000), an adept placing together of three disparate but similar moments in a young woman’s life. Elsewhere, though, she relies on melodramatic extremes of character to push a story into being at the cost of psychological depth, as in “Penelope,” where a middle-class girl gives a gift to poor Mexicans; “Lois in the Country,” about an almost perversely reserved and cautious mother; or “His Beautiful Handwriting,” about a schoolteacher whose well-known mentor was insensitive and bigoted. Sometimes the stories remain at the level of little more than anecdote, as do “Yankee Traders” (a couple goes antiquing) and the title story (a schoolboy tells his mother he needs a play costume—the next day). Still, in execution Gavell never stumbles, and when her ambitions rise to the level of her abilities, the results can be notable—as in the elegantly simple closing tale, “The Blessing,” about belief, marriage, and the nature of dedication over three generations of a rural Texas family.

Dubiously substantial enough for an entire volume, though two or three well worthy entrants help carry the rest along.

Pub Date: Aug. 21st, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-50612-8
Page count: 176pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2001