New and Selected Stories

Sallie Bingham
Roland and Madeline have a falling out there in Paris because he didn't buy her a bunch of sweet peas. Ellie and Hal dicker in the school library about his exams and his boredom. Miriam and Shirley go at it because when dad died, Miriam got most of the family farm and promptly sold it off to developers.

As I went through this collection of eighteen stories, I began to get the distinct feeling of déjà vu: thinking that if I wanted to get caught in the middle of a bicker, I could probably find it all here at home with my own beloved.

Miscommunication seems to be the crux of it. Heidi and Larry go off to spend the weekend with brother Harold. No one says anything of note until niece, nicely named "Moth," appears in the kitchen. Now at last, we find someone who doesn't pussy-foot around: she wants to know why the two visitors made so much noise the night before when they were making love, "Cauterwauling like an alley cat in heat," as she has it. At that point, the story gets interesting.

There's a lot of beating around the bush here, and it might be considered as Bingham's principal weakness. These are people who feel stuff but don't know how to say it. There are a few who speak right up. The stories that don't founder are the ones where someone gets their dander up --- or their passion.

The artist Benjamin, now ninety years old, is being honored for his years of painting. But he is a lusty old goat, and on the way to his hotel with the museum director, "he notices the girl driving has a pretty neck, tendriled with dark hair ... he traces each tendril with his forefinger." And by gum, later on, he manages, sly old bastard, to bed her.

But that's not the be-all of the story. We get a picture of a picture-maker who is suddenly faced with his past, at the ceremony for his award he sees a painting "that he has not seen or thought much about in thirty years,"

    he relishes each detail, each successful brushstroke, as though a fundamental doubt about his life is being resolved.

When he steps back from the painting, "he senses a sort of relief blooming around him, knows his reputation as a wrecker has preceded him and at least one person has feared he will actually harm his own work." This sketch of an old artist, still trying to sew what's left of his wild oats turns out to be a charmer (no nags here) ... does everything we want a short story to do: in this case quickly sketching a quirky old man, like one of the casual drawings which he is still able to whip up when the feeling moves him.

§   §   §

The New Yorker was quite impressed with this collection, comparing it, of all things, to Roger Federer's tennis ("hypnotic ... unanalyzable.") The review ended,

    these stories distill the mysterious glow that lives emanate as they recede into the past, confirming Bangham's place in the front rank of practitioners of this elusive genre.

Elusive genre be damned; for me the glow crops up in some but certainly not all of the stories. Like with Benjamin and Moth ... and the simple tale of Caroline, the teacher, sixty-three-years-old, living alone. She hires one of her students, Charles, to help her can some apricots. Not your typical springtime idyllic adventure steaming there before the stove, but Bingham gives it some juice. We find the two of them in the kitchen sampling the wares:

    Without its fuzzy skin, the apricot looked small and vulnerable, like a naked part of a person that would ordinarily be hidden ... the soft meaty flesh of the apricot fell away onto her tongue. It was deliciously sweet, and hot.

And, yes, dear reader, after canning these sweet tidbits, Charles and Caroline fall to --- and Bingham ends with a moist meditation on the savor of their adventure, the taste and the texture that brought them together, the one I must put under the category of Don't block that metaphor!

    She even remembered the seam that ran up one side of each pit, and she also remembered the way the thick sweet smell of the cooking apricots had been cut by the tang of vinegar.

My guess is that what Bingham needs for her next volume is a ruthless but careful editor who will cut stories that undermine her obvious talent; someone with a taste for the sweet and the sour that --- when she is at her best --- Bingham is so richly able to fructify.

--- Rebecca Wisdom, MA
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