9/7/13 – BOOK REVIEW: WASHED IN THE WATER BY NANCY HARTNEY
Nancy Hartney doesn’t just create a sense of place in her stories; she actually takes you there, lifting you out of your reading chair and virtually transporting you to the South as it was fifty years ago. In Washed in the Water, her debut collection of short stories, Hartney writes with such authority and realism about the white underbelly of the region during that era that she immediately establishes herself as an important new voice of the South, with a style and tone reminiscent of Carson McCullers, Erskine Caldwell, or Flannery O’Connor. You certainly don’t need to read the book jacket to know where Hartney comes from.
The title story is captivating. Lisa Dell is a rotund young woman whose manipulative mother arranges for her to be baptized by an itinerant minister, a seedy character who insists that sex be part of the bargain. Lisa reluctantly joins her mother at a born-again revival but then sneaks out and hides in the church cemetery where a young couple takes refuge to make love. Like Lisa, “they feel safer among the departed.”
The minister finds her eventually and offers to “guide her. Private like.” When Lisa says no, he reminds her that she has to obey her mother and the Lord. “You a woman that God made ample,” he tells her. “He done that meaning for you to share yourself.” In this story and others, Hartney tackles multiple taboos adroitly, making it all real and believable, no easy task.
Hartney’s tales are not particularly strong on plot; there are few surprises and her endings tend to be a bit predictable. But the characters—characters who have “vinegary dispositions” or who carry “a stench of meanness”— are more than enough to compensate. In The Day the Snake Got Killed, it’s the grandmother who teaches respect for all living beings and who knows “You can’t undo what’s been done….You can only keep going and do better next time.” In The Fig Tree, it’s Lee, a young girl who’s bereft and bewildered because her mama has run away, presumably with another woman. And in Last Love, it’s Leroy Jackson, who first appears as thoroughly unlikeable but eventually lets his humanity shine through, making a big sacrifice for his dog, who he loves more than any human being.
One of my favorite stories is The Stooper, the last of the tales in this slim volume. Hartney, who has written extensively about horses and riding, captures the mood and atmosphere of a dying racetrack to tell the story of Alice, a woman whose “days—as often as possible—uncoiled at the track with its great dirt oval, shed row backside, greasy canteen, and betting windows peopled by crippled souls living on myopic dreams.” She longs to be a jockey but with two strikes against her (she’s a woman and she’s gay), she has to settle for two-bit grooming jobs.
Eventually Alice meets Lester Groh, the “stooper,” so-named because he picks used programs off the ground and hawks them for half price. Lester gives Alice a tip on a horse whose owners are illegally manipulating the odds. He asks her to bet his stake and to give it to “the wetback cleaning woman. You know the one who cleans out the toilets.” I won’t spoil the ending, but it sums up everything about this volume; it’s touching, and it evokes real sympathy for the presumed misfits of society who deserve a whole lot more from life. At least they get it here, in Nancy Hartney’s skilled hands.
Later this month, I’ll be interviewing Nancy Hartney to learn more about her roots and her writing. Check back Sept. 17.
Disclosure: Washed in the Water was published (July, 2013) by Pen-L Press, which is also my publisher, but I’ve never met Nancy Hartney, I wasn’t asked to review her book, and I purchased a copy with my own money.