And Venus is Blue Matt Briggs Book Lovers

book And Venus is Blue

reviewed by Matt Briggs

Published in Issue No. 51 ~ August, 2001

Unlike the stock detail of William Gay’s Provinces of Night,
which wears its Southerness like a Confederate flag iron-on decal,
And Venus Is Blue
emanates The South as a region and a place where
people live and things go on with or without a genuine short story
writer to take it all down. The stories in Mary Hood’s
collection fit comfortably into the tradition of realism (Chekov,
Sherwood Anderson, and Peter Taylor) and are Southern in so far as the
characters yearn for red dirt, find extra cash in crash ’em up
derbies, and live below the Mason Dixon line.

Some writers overrun a tale with style and the resulting artificiality
of language superimposes itself on the story. Other writers want to
leave no trace of their presence. To describe the dichotomy between
these two approaches, Charles d’Ambrosio uses the metaphor of a window
screen. Some writers write with the focus on the view out of the
window; the author intends the reader to see through the screen. Other
writers focus on the screen and window frame and the view out the
window is incidental. A writer like William Gay spends a lot of time
fiddling with the screen. A great deal of pleasure in reading his
writing comes from his particular use of language. And because it
primarily concerns the language, the characters and situations become
distorted. In a sense, the fabricated South has become as much a part
of The Southern landscape as the Mississippi Delta, the boll weevil,
and shotgun shacks.

Mary Hood keeps her fiction focused clearly on the view beyond the
screen. She is a Southern writer because that’s the landscape on which
her window looks. Even so, her stories deal with many of the standard
Southern themes, poor whites living at the mercy of bad jobs and bad
habits, characters with developmental handicaps, men sinking into old
age. In “After Moore,” Rhonda escapes her childhood marriage to an
older, slick ladies man (Moore) only to have him, years later, win her
back. Moore’s mellowed, grown a potbelly, and lost his hair. Rhonda
supports herself and wins the occasional crash ’em up derby. In
“Nobody’s Fool,” an old man, rather than admit the mistake of letting
the dog out to his daughter, runs away and finds that he can’t survive
by himself. “The Good Wife Hawkins” follows the reversal of a wife
living at the mercy of her husband’s brutality, to his disability and
living under her thumb. In public, he is a civic leader and business
owner and in private, he is petty, brutal man, punishing his wife by
making her stand against the wall for hours. After raping his wife, he
suffers a stroke and she takes control of his care. She exacts her
revenge in neglect, feeding him at odd times, not washing him, and not
taking him to the toilet.

Hood, however, keeps the stories from sliding into the gothic. For
instance, the final scene in “Something Good for Ginnie,” occurs in
the hospital between Ginnie, her father and the grandfather who’s just
been shot. The scene could’ve easily spun off into a heavy-handed
intergenerational Southern Gothic revival. Instead, Mary Hood deftly
deflates the heavy-handed elements and keeps the story focused on the
characters. A pharmacist, Doc, has a daughter late in life. She can
drive at the age of twelve and runs around by the age of fourteen. Her
adolescent troubles come to a head one night when after several days
of partying she takes one of her boyfriends, Jordan, into the pharmacy
to have sex. Doc comes into the store and maybe thinks it’s a bugler
or maybe knows it’s his daughter Ginnie with a boy. In any case, Doc
shoots the kid.

At the door, the policeman cleared his throat.

They looked at him, for news. He said, “I was just clearing my

“They out to have a TV in here,” Ginnie said.

“I could see them moving around – the silhouettes, you know?”
Doc spoke to the deputy. “I did what I thought right at the time.”

Jordan’s grandfather said, “He was born right here in this

Doc said, “She was too.”

Jordan’s grandfather said, “The night you made her, you should have
shot it in the sink instead.”

Ginnie laughed.

Doc didn’t. He jumped up so fast his chair turned over. The two men
kept hitting each other, and sobbing, till the orderlies and the
officer pulled them apart. The old man sat down, still crisp with
anger, and pressed his handkerchief to his lip. A nurse brought Doc a
plastic glove filled with ice for his eye.

Doc blew his nose.

The indirection of who is talking to whom and who blames whom for what,
leads to the futile battering of these two old men. Doc tells the
policeman, who isn’t listening, what happened. The grandfather seems to
offer some kind hope that things will turn out all right, some kind
offering of relation between his grandson and Ginnie. This dissolves with
that line, “you should have it shot it in the sink instead,” which is
about as gothic as you like. Ginnie laughs which perhaps seem like the
kind of thing a teenager would do, but it is also a laugh because she is
fine even though as a slut it would seem she was being victimized by the
school boys, but as a slut, as a girl with nothing to loose, runs the
boys. For her, I think, this statement affirms her power as a person with
nothing to loose; and for her father fixes the realization that he can
shoot all the boys he likes, it isn’t going to change his daughter.

The way the two old men scuffle, sobbing and the intervention of
orderlies (as if they are crazy) undermines the bigger issues in the
scene and heightens the realistic fact that Ginnie was just a girl
with a boy in a dark room and that her father shot her the boy.

The second to last story in the book, “Finding the Chain” pin points
Hood’s use of realistic and unexpected detail to find effective
symbols. A woman in her second marriage brings her kids from her first
marriage and new husband to the cabin she grew up in. They have to
sell the cabin because it is rotting; it is too far to drive
regularly. She is the only one with a solid connection to the place
and as they stay there the family keeps misunderstanding her
connection to the place. Her husband for instance packs a box full of
“the reddest dirt he can find.” Where they see junk and age and
neglect, she sees fading memory and how her grandfather intended
things to be. In a junk heap, a bedspring, a broken TV, pickle jars,
“she picked up the doorknob she had told them about. The white
porcelain one that his great-grandmother saved for the housewarming,
from the other house, the one that burned … The porcelain doorknob
was chipped and the shaft wrung off.”

These stories fit into literature of The South, mainly through their
evocation of small moments in the sweep of their characters’ lives;
they reveal how a personal history can hang on the smallest detail.

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Matt Briggs is the author of The Remains of River Names, published by Black Heron Press. His stories have appeared in The Northwest Review, The North Atlantic Review, StringTown, The Mississippi Review, ZYZZYVA and elsewhere. Essays have been in The Washington Free Press, The Raven Chronicles, and The American Book Review. He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.