I don’t like short stories. I try to like them, but usually I just don’t. It seems to me that most short stories are about infidelity, ennui, and Quirky Things the Author Enjoys Smirking at. It’s rare to find a short story where that has any kind of growth or redemption or soul. I don’t know why this is — poetry has soul and it’s a lot shorter. Short stories are like flings: either I am depressed about the whole banal situation, or I have just fallen in love and then it’s over. It’s a rare thing to make something brief that has any magic yet does not leave a wake of heartbreak.
But. I just read Mattaponi Queen by Belle Boggs, and you guys, it’s the real thing. Belle was at Sewanee with me, and I read her book because I think she’s really cool. I mean, she makes me want to grow my hair out and rock sunglasses and be from Virginia. But more than that, she makes me want to be a writer as awesomely as she is a writer. She really rocks it in the most graceful, human way. So I bought her book. And even though it’s a story collection, I loved it.
This is why: First of all, it reminds me of eating a chocolate coconut Mighty-O donut under a sidewalk tree on a lazy Saturday afternoon before a first date that turned out well. This isn’t really the book’s fault — that’s what I was doing when I started it. But Mattaponi Queen is like that. Its world is mundane, un-glossy, and not as brutal as history would lead us to suspect. It’s the kind of world where things like donuts aren’t harbingers of societal malaise, but a thing a person might just like. A thing with its own internal balance, the way the oil in a good donut balances the sugar.
Second, it feels like Belle really loves her characters. This matters to me. I am always telling people “I want to see you love your characters.” What this means is that her characters have space and dignity to lead their lives according to their own logic. They can be complex, strange, mean, sad bastards and she isn’t sitting there smirking at them. The stories are all about people from near the Mattaponi River in Virginia, and the characters pop up in each other’s stories, which I like. Many of her characters are familiar: mean old white ladies, alcoholic Indians, confused pregnant women, lonely forty year olds, black kids getting sucked down — but they don’t stay in the molds those labels give them. They get human. Their lives run on their own logic, their own richness and grace.
And so, these stories end up feeling both simple and generous. They didn’t leave me feeling empty, and maybe because the world they make builds from story to story, I did not feel jerked out too soon. There is heartbreak in them, but it’s the heartbreak watching someone you care about, a neighbor or the husband of a friend perhaps, who is caught in a bad cycle, rather than the heartbreak of dashed hopes and bleakness inherent in a world run by my stereotypical smirking, cynical story writer. So I guess I have just been reading the wrong short stories all this time.