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Thursday
Aug272009

1984

Victory Over Japan

By Ellen Gilchrist

Original Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Current Publisher:
Back Bay Books (Hachette Book Group)

Elinor Lipman writes:

Jonathan Yardley has recently written in the Washington Post that he and his fellow judges, Laurie Colwin and Leonard Michaels--whom he'd chosen for what he hoped were "literary tastes diametrically opposed to my own"--agreed "immediately and unanimously" to award the 1984 prize to Ellen Gilchrist for her second story collection. Their choice said, in effect, we recognize the art of high wit and dark humor, the audacious charms of characters whose eccentricities are original and whose proclivities tilt toward the racy and the illicit. In praise of "Victory Over Japan," Beverly Lowry wrote in the New York Times that "nerve urges a fiction writer to go ahead and shoot whatever moon is it he has been given to aim at, without caution or respect for current fashion."  

"Nerve" in Gilchrist's work is not a narrow thread. It is present in her unadorned sentences, her unfailing ear, her clear and unsentimental gaze and in the attention paid to lust. In these fourteen stories, rash behaviors make for bold characterizations: The danger zones into which these deliciously flawed southern women trespass are ruled by money, passion, and the disappointments delivered by mothers, marriage, and men.

Almost every opening line is a plain declarative sentence alive with ambition, such as, "Rhoda was fourteen years old the summer her father dragged her off to Clay County, Kentucky, to make her stop smoking and acting like a movie star." Or, "Nora Jane Whittington was going to have a baby." Nothing behind her words is safe or predictable. Happiness, when visited, is offbeat and off-kilter.      

How fitting that Gilchrist begins "Traceleen's Telling a Story Called 'A Bad Year'" with what might be a good set of questions for a panel of fiction judges: "What's a story of this type for? What's any story for? To make us laugh I guess..." Elsewhere she writes of Nora Jane's "miraculous voice." It is praise that fits every page of this collection, a hymn to Gilchrist's economy, originality, poignancy, and chutzpah.

Elinor Lipman is the author of ten works of fiction, including The Inn at Lake Devine, Then She Found Me and The Family Man. She was a National Book Awards Fiction judge in 2008.

Terry Quinn writes:

In Victory Over Japan, as in so much of her fiction,  Ellen Gilchrist displays a genius for letting her irony take root in the fertile distance between the sensibilities she is confident of sharing with her reader, and those possessed by a character like her Rhoda: “Now the radio was bringing important news to Seymour, Indiana, strange, confused, hush-hush news that said we had a bomb bigger than any bomb ever made and we had already dropped it on Japan and half of Japan was sinking into the sea. Now the Japs had to surrender. Now they couldn’t come to Indiana and stick bamboo up our fingernails. Now it would all be over and my father would come home.”

The author first acquaints us with an adult narrator looking back on her younger self. (“When I was in the third grade I knew a boy who had to have fourteen shots in the stomach as the result of a squirrel bite.”) Then she swiftly banishes that wiser presence and lets us see and hear the world just the way Rhoda does. And what gloriously quirky things that character sees her mother do: “She was sitting on the back steps putting liquid hose on her legs,” or hear her father say to his befuddled wife: “What do you mean, you can’t teach her? Hit her with a broom. Hit her with a table. Hit her with a chair. But, for God’s sake, Ariane, don’t let her talk to you that way.”

Another delight is how Gilchrist’s characters often hop from one story in the volume into another, at times showing up in an altered form. Whether it’s Rhoda, Nora Jane, Miss Crystal, or the latter’s  little blister of a son, King, Gilchrist will catch that figure at a different age, present him or her with a brand-new set of conflicts, and radically shift the narrative perspective.

In the title story, for example, the protagonist is eight years old. We enjoy a short fictional memoir told in the first person as grown-up Rhoda recalls the innocence of her wartime youth: “I was dreaming I was at the wheel of an airplane carrying the bomb to Japan. Hit ‘em, I was yelling. Hit ‘em with a mountain. Hit ‘em with a table. Hit ‘em with a chair.” How artfully the child is made to identify with her parental aggressor and sublimate her fury in an excess of patriotism.

But in “Music,” a much longer, more complex story – and, in my estimation, the strongest of the lot – Rhoda is a nicotine-crazed 14-year-old at loggerheads with her loving yet feckless father. This time a fairly distanced third-person narrator is in charge of the storytelling, and the girl’s escapades are far from innocent. She lies. She takes advantage of one of her father’s less astute employees and commandeers a Jeep to get her forbidden smokes. She takes an immediate liking, too, to a young man whose very gait seems sufficient to seduce her: “He walked with a precise, balanced sort of cockiness, as if he knew he could walk any way he wanted but had carefully chosen this particular walk as his own.”

And when he lures her to the woods and deflowers her, she doesn’t mind much at all. She’s out in the world at last, dazzled by its wonders and making things happen. Alone in bed that night Rhoda has a momentary qualm, then: “She moved her hands along her thighs, trying to remember exactly what it was they had done, trying to remember the details, wondering where she could find him in the morning.” Which, of course, she won’t.

At the start of the next tale, Rhoda is married, yet merrily dreaming of “crushing the skulls of Jody’s sheepdogs ... ” (We haven’t heard word-one of Jody yet in this book, nor does that matter.) “ ... Or else she was crushing Jody’s skull. Jody was the husband she was leaving. Crunch, crunch, crunch went the skulls between her hands, beneath her heels.” And so things go in the piquant wilds of Ellen Gilchrist’s 192-page book. The method she uses to trace Rhoda’s careening path she’ll use as well with Lady Margaret, Nora Jean, Miss Crystal, and that highly unstable woman’s long-suffering husbands, sociopathic son and domineering brother – all of whose small triumphs and fiascos are riotously reported on by the family maid, Traceleen.

It’s tasteful, highly sophisticated Southern Gothic. It’s smart and it touches the heart. Above all, it’s a scream.

Terry Quinn is a novelist, poet, and playwright whose work has been published by Little, Brown and St. Martin’s Press, among others and whose plays have been produced in the United States and Europe. He teaches at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY. www.TerryQuinn.com

 

ISBN: 9780316313070

Fiction Finalists that Year:  

  • Alison Lurie for Foreign Affairs 
  • Philip Roth for The Anatomy Lesson

Fiction Judges that Year: Jonathan Yardley, Laurie Colwin, Leonard Michaels

The Year in Literature:

  • Ironweed by William Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Jaroslav Seifertwon the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • Ellen Gilchrist earned a BA degree in philosophy and studied creative writing, especially the work of Eudora Welty, at Millsaps College.
  • Later in life, Gilchrist enrolled in the Creative Writing program at the University of Arkansas but never earned her MFA.
  • Gilchrist has also won awards for her poetry, although she is best known for her short stories.

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