Saturday, March 09, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 5

Wendy Brenner on Mary Hood's HOW FAR SHE WENT

I'm sure it was the racy title that attracted me, in gargantuan white letters on the otherwise plain book jacket. The lack of a cover image suggested subject matter too graphic to be depicted. I carried the book around in college, in Ohio in the 1980s, hoping boys would take notice and draw the correct conclusion about me. It seemed to work. How the first-edition hardback found its way into my hands back then is a mystery, up there in the snowy north. Probably a creative writing professor recommended it, or maybe I stole it from the campus bookstore (a regular activity), thrilled by that title. I had thus far lived all eighteen  years of my life in Chicago, a Jewish agnostic who'd never set foot in Georgia or any other southern state, unless Sanibel Island, Florida, where we went on a few family vacations, counted. Mary Hood might've been writing in a foreign language as far as I was concerned. I thought the Okefenokee swamp was the imaginary creation of Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly, whose comic books my father collected—I didn't know it was a real place until I drove through it on my way to graduate school in Florida.

Like Walt Kelly's artfully mangled southern dialect, like Shakespeare, like a code, Mary Hood's sentences were impossibly complicated or impossibly simple, packed with information and implication I could not understand but which glowed with some sot of power, call it literary radioactivity. Half the time I didn't know what Mary Hood was talking about, and to be honest, I still don't. But I went looking in her stories for girls like me, girls who went too far—and I found them: the title story's defiant, unnamed 15-year-old in her tight cut-offs and "Every Inch A Woman" t-shirt, who appears "defenseless only an instant" when verbally attacked by her grandmother; or Elizabeth in "A Country Girl," escorting the visiting young reporter past the KEEP OUT sign: "she knew a place where the fence was down. They crossed boldly." Or Angelina in "Inexorable Progress," whose eyes were "fixed in bravado," but "behind them, fear, that restless housecat paced." My mother liked to tell a story about me as a small child, how she hit me so hard her own hand hurt, but even then I would grit my teeth so as not to cry, look her right in the eye and say That didn't hurt. Mary Hood's stories did not console, nor did they explain or solve anything. They had sad or maddening or hopeless endings. Yet they felt true in some severe, elusive way that mattered more to me, then and now, than anything. Every word felt true.

I spent considerable time contemplating Mary Hood's author photo on the back of the book. She looked like a normal lady, like a high school teacher or something. I didn't get it. I could not find anything remotely racy, transgressive, or delinquent in her pleasant, intelligent gaze. There would be no point in putting up her photo in my dorm room, not like, say, Karl Bissinger's 1946 noir-ish photo of author Jane Bowles looking murderously stylish or stylishly murderous. Where Mary Hood's scary-beautiful stories came from I could not determine. I didn't understand the parts about God. I didn't understand the language her characters spoke. I might now write those same sentences about the Bible, though that thought would not have occurred to me in 1984. I still own the book, the original first-edition copy I probably stole from Oberlin's campus bookstore, and it has moved with me to Florida, New York, and back south to my current home in North Carolina. I've lived in the south for more than twenty years now, I write books and teach writing, and I am no closer to understanding Mary Hood's stories or how she wrote them<—but I understand when I re-read them why they have endured.

Wendy Brenner is the author of LARGE ANIMALS IN EVERYDAY LIFE (1996), as well as the short story collection Phone Calls from the Dead. Her stories and essays have appeared in Seventeen, Allure, Oxford American, Best American Magazine Writing, and other publications. She teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.