|cover credit: Twelve Winters Press|
Twelve Winters Press (2015)
Reviewed by Angele Ellis
Beth Gilstrap’s composite collection of short stories and flash fiction begins like a wild drum solo and ends like a sweet refrain—the kind in which the singers fade softly into silence.
From the title piece, “I Am Barbarella,” to the final story, “B-Sides,” Gilstrap’s tough lyricism, in a medley of first-person voices, wraps mystery and heartbreak around her characters’ grooved lives. No wonder Gilstrap has included a playlist for this debut collection, drawn from fifty years of popular music (the Spotify playlist is available at her website, bethgilstrap.com).
In “I Am Barbarella,” Gilstrap’s nameless narrator, egged on by a friend and her own conflicted desires, transforms herself from wife to bar-show sex queen and back again—in five hundred words. As the narrator of the following story, “Yard Sale,” says: “It ain’t garbage if you turn it into something.”
At the heart of this book are ten interconnected short stories that trace the lives of three generations of southerners—solid Sue and William; their dutiful son Hardy and his runaway wife, Loretta; and Hardy and Loretta’s pained yet loyal daughter, Janine. (Neighbors Lucille and Rachel—whom this reader imagines as a gritty alto and a shrill soprano—also add their voices to the mix.)
Gilstrap, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is editor-in-chief of Atticus Review, has a gift for describing place and nature as palpable as her love of music. In “Paper Fans,” Janine and her best friend Maddie hang at a local bar:
Janine tosses her and Maddie’s coats up in the corner like some black heap of animal carcass… The burned out letters BBQ hanging on the opposite wall look their age. Janine’s mind felt the same, like charred paint flakes on metal shells. This is the Diamond’s second life, but it’s been open in some fashion since the ’50s. It smells like burnt tomato sauce, fryer grease, and cigarettes. […] She orders fried pickles. Two junior blocks with chili. Pitcher of Pabst.And in “Getting by with Sound,” Hardy ruminates on the rural pleasures of his late father, William:
Those were the things he liked to do. Listen to stories, walk, and admire the scent of his gardenias, the feel of their waxy leaves and petals. He used to pick them for my mother, and she always kept them on the windowsill in the kitchen. They were beautiful until the petals turned brown, but then the smell just grew sweeter.In an interview with Twelve Winters Press, Gilstrap describes her use of place and her attachment to the South as follows:
For me place is as much a character as a walking, breathing person. It shapes everything: plot, character, atmosphere, you name it. I grew up reading Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, and Alice Walker so place was already vital in the literature I loved. Chatham’s [Pittsburgh’s Chatham University, where Gilstrap earned an MFA in fiction writing] emphasis on place-based writing was one of the reasons I chose their program. My bones, my heart are the South, for better or worse, whether I like it or not. I am built of this land and all the ghosts that accompany it.The ghosts in I Am Barbarella propel its living characters away from intimacy as much as they root them in the land—including a child lost in an accident, a father eaten away by cancer, a husband who completes suicide, and a lover who “smelled like bug spray and honeysuckle.” When Hardy and Loretta—who’s back in town after years on the road with a boyfriend’s band, but still restless—visit William’s grave, Loretta insists on bringing a bag of Red Man tobacco to place on William’s headstone. But when Loretta reaches out in compassion to the still grieving Hardy, the result is solitary tears, not renewal of long lost togetherness.
Giving away too much of the characters’ skipping lives seems like revealing the punch line of a joke—even one told many times, as a favorite song is played into infinity. But it is not cheating to say that in I Am Barbarella, Gilstrap creates a vital world in which friendship is as strong as betrayal; beauty endures not only in the landscape, but also in objects as small as a leftover Christmas package or a perfect chocolate pie; and there may be time for tentative second chances.