Monday, September 1, 2014

THE KENTUCKY STORIES, beautifully crafted and gorgeously wrought


THE KENTUCKY STORIES
JOE ASHBY PORTER

Johns Hopkins University Press
Out of print; available used at Amazon

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In these eight stories, the state of Kentucky becomes a state of mind—a semi-mythical realm of the heart's fidelities and predelictions, of violence, fear, and love. It is a land where the commonplace takes on a new and marvelous glow as quixotic individuals explore the enduring puzzles of human existence.

Joe Ashby Porter brings a distinctive freshness to universal themes: the commerce of love and abandonment, the sometimes mysterious influence of a place on events, the relationship between pride, humility, and justice, and the rewards of allegiance and persistence. His characters—innocents all—resolutely pursue their life's goals through picaresque tales that are continually unfolding from surprise to surprise. From the urbane twins of "In the Mind's Eye" to the isolated mountain family of "A Child of the Heart," Porter's protagonists share a stubborn optimism and trust and a readiness to see things through to their conclusion.

In Porter's half-lost and half-remembered Kentucky, only fiction is true. I beckons the reader with all the promised adventure and exhilaration that drew Daniel Boone to a similarly unexplored land two centuries ago.

My Review: Clearly Porter heard and absorbed the maxim, "Begin as you mean to go on." Eight stories in the collection, and all of them are juicy. Faithful to the Bryce Method, I'll offer a small hit on each one of the stories.

"Bowling Green" offers a practical country woman's take on the nature of expectations and the role of hope in life. "She was practically a virgin—she'd only had to do with her brothers." The narrator offers this on page three. 4.75 stars

"Murder at the Sweet Varsity" is a fifty-year-old memory of a violent crime resulting from sordid criminality, told from the viewpoint of the unjustly accused. It's a taut twenty-page murder mystery, and darn good too. 4.5 stars

"A Child of the Heart" is about the sad endings that follow happy beginnings. "Only a fool will deny that an abundance of flowers can quicken a woman's blood, and that continuing sun can burn years off a man's back. The poverty of life here augments the power of those influences. We lose our vision, and move like wooden toys: one year we wash the curtains, the next we plant a row of cabbages behind the house; and then comes a summer like that one, with grass soft as rabbit fur, and flowers." Of course a price must be paid for abundance and glory. 5 stars

"The Vacation" takes us into the heart of the human condition: It is human nature to hate those whom we have injured. Tacitus said it two thousand years ago. It's never been not true. 4 stars

"Nadine, The Supermarket, The Story Ends" purports to be three interconnected shorter pieces about the end of the world...in many ways eerily prescient, as with Ebola and numerous limited wars spreading and metastasizing, and in others a product of the 1970s/80s in which it was written...but in the end not coming together as a satisfying whole, and not strong enough in its parts to reach the heights surrounding it. 3 stars

"In the Mind's Eye" completely wigged me out...twins raised by a very loosely wrapped widow, sharing one name and one identity, not learning any sense of time because they were each Victor for only one day, then switch, then switch, then...you know, it makes my head hurt to think about it. Sort of a less horrible, less plausible version of Room. I don't know if I've absorbed its real and total implications, or ever can expect to. 4 stars

"Bright Glances" recounts the simple events of a calm life spent unhurriedly. Vale, Margaret Rideout Utley Kercheval Smoot. I will remember you. Thanks for wishing me well. 4 stars

"Yours" is a charming valedictory to a quiet journey, and to a little loved companion, and to a time and a place that aren't conceivable in the Internet age. Seek this collection of small gems out and bask in its lovely words, its truthsome stories, and its vanished people.4 stars

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