"I Want to Show You More," stories by Jamie Quatro. Grove Press. 206 pages. $24
Jamie Quatro is a writer who takes chances. When they work, the result is luminous and moving; when they don't, the reader is often left wondering what in the world she is saying. Most of these stories appeared first in the so-called "little" magazines -- (Kenyon Review, Tin House, The Southern Review) and have the quality and sometime obscure nature of those publications.
The story "1.7 to Tennessee" is seen through the eyes of an 89-year-old woman named Eva Beck, who is walking the 1.7 mile highway to the post office just across the Georgia border in Tennesee. Her son has been killed in Vietnam, and she has written to President George W. Bush. "It was a formal letter, protesting the war. She felt it her duty to place it, personally, into the hands of the government."
But as she tires, distracted by the trucks roaring past and a dog who seems to be threatening her, she becomes confused, makes a wrong turn, comes upon a steep drop-off. She swings her umbrella at the dog and loses her balance and falls. "Something was not right with the sky ... the black spots had returned and now swirled in front of the yellow dangling leaves ..." In the next paragraphs references are made to her funeral, to the letter that is found and sent to the president. A form letter is returned. A postal worker reads it, places it in the sack that had held his sandwich, and tosses it "into the Dumpster next to the Lookout Mountain Cafe."
Without making a comment or judgment, Quatro has said it all.
Several other stories are equally successful. In "The Anointing," a desperate wife arranges for her pastor to come to her home and perform an anointing ceremony on her severely depressed husband. Her children do not understand what has happened to their father, and she does not realize how much his condition has affected her. At the end he seems to have improved, "but there was nothing she could do to save herself." In "The Sinkhole," a boy whose baby brother has died because he was born with a hole in his heart, imagines he has a sinkhole in his chest that could kill him. He is comforted by a girl with a serious and humiliating condition, and in a final act of love, he is cured.
But the stories that don't work, don't work at all. "Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement" describes a road race, in which the competitors receive statues after competing in a marathon, and must carry them on future races. They are of varying sizes and shapes, sometimes of a sexual nature. "You can't choose your statue, but you do get to decide how you'll carry it .... they say your statue has nothing to do with who you are as a person, but everyone knows it has everything to do with who you are and what you think about..." At the finish of the marathon the narrator sees runners falling and there is a "20-yard-long vanguard of soldiers" firing at them. She goes down, but she's not defeated. The story seems full of symbolism, but what it means I know not.
I have the same problem with "Holy Ground," in which a woman goes for a run, telling her husband and children "I won't be back for a few days." She says goodbye to her pastor, who says he will pray for her "at length," and starts running down Lookout Mountain. She stops in a church, saying she just wants to help the poor. And is asked what she can do. "I can sort of read Hebrew," she says. She is taken to a "grimy" neighborhood and a broken-down house filled with "women of every skin tone, black and white, mostly large-breasted ... two of them hug me ..." They feed her, comb her hair, dance with her, and at the end she makes plans to go home. "To rich people territory" a girl says. "Back to holy ground."
"Listen," I say, "it's all holy ground."
A number of incompatible themes run through these stories. Many of them feature women who are in love with men other than their husband, and frequently have furtive conversations with them, often describing sexual things they want to do with the other. (The title of the book comes from a woman who is sending her lover pictures of her body.) At the same time, a great many of them deal with God. Sometimes the women see God, or talk with him, and sometimes he really seems to be there. The jacket copy describes it as "a stunning and subversive portrait of modern infidelity, faith and family."
What are these stories supposed to tell me? I have no idea. The author, who lives with her husband and children in Lookout Mountain, Ga., and sets all of her stories in this region, has been called "a brilliant new voice in American fiction" and "a new talent with work made to last." At her best, she is marvelous, funny and real. But she is also given to images and symbols that do not communicate anything to me. It will be interesting to see what she does with what is, at best, an extraordinary talent.