Bear Me Safely Over
By Sheri Joseph
Atlantic Monthly Press, 256 pp., $23
en stories make Sheri Joseph s fictional debut, Bear Me Safely Over, her debut ... what? Short-story collection? Not exactly. The stories stand on their own terms but are made to stand in relation to one another as well, the events and characters described in them tied to an almost novelistic extent. Debut novel? No way. The stories stay their independent course, their narratives complete but their significance heightened by the stories that came before, their meaning expanded by those that come after.
It s a demanding strategy for an author to tackle and a difficult, sometimes elliptical, one for her audience to follow, and whether Joseph arrived at it early or late in this book s composition leaves us wondering. But this guess:
A book of short stories from a new author can be a hard-sell. Many of these stories maybe began life clear of one another. Give your prospective audience a few guiding threads, some shared settings, and that audience might believe it s inching into novel territory, an easier sell. Or is terminal aimlessness, some failure to entirely add up, the very feature that demarcates these characters?
Take Marcy Ballard, who, in Mercy, is a nobody in her own eyes and a freshman in high school in Greene County, Georgia, outside Atlanta. We know she has a golden-haired sister named Sidra two years her senior and a single mom named Florie, who seems by all rights a pretty understanding woman, especially after parting ways with a pretty impossible husband. In no time Marcy starts hitching on weekends with a girlfriend to parts known (Atlanta) and parts unknown (central Florida, Memphis) and in Memphis starts turning tricks and injecting drugs. No surprise that by the age of 19 Marcy comes home to die of AIDS. That s Marcy.
Sidra is girlfriend to Curtis, bass player in a band that s going nowhere and newly evicted from his Athens, Georgia, digs. He s 25, back home in Greene County, testy, and in the book s opener, Hindsight, he gets a kick in the back by one of Sidra s edgy horses. Sidra s edgy too and back home purely to piss her mother off. And maybe to piss [Curtis] off in the bargain. After two years dating, Curtis asks her to marry him. And why not? The sex is good.
Curtis major apparent hangup (and potential target of violence) is Paul, his 17-year-old fairy of a teenage stepbrother, who, in Say the Magic Word, dons a blue blanket at the age of 8 and, before his patient father Dan, starts in on some combo of the Virgin Mary, the Mona Lisa, and who knows what else. Dan is mystified. You ll be too. Until, in the book s three best stories, we witness Paul come into his own and to life as a pickup on the streets of Atlanta (in Wrestling at the Gates ), as a runaway on the country roads of Greene County (trailed by his stepmother, Muriel a beautifully drawn, heartbreaking character in Rest Stop ), and finally in the unlikely arms of Curtis bandmate Kent in Rapture, an unusual pairing made especially believable thanks to the author s frank treatment of their relationship and the troubling spot Kent finds himself in.
Less considerable: Sidra s temporary born-again doings, age 13, inside the King s Way Baptist Church in Absolute Sway, under the watchful eye and narrative voice of one Loretta Moss. How does Loretta figure in all this? Dunno. Do know Sidra loses her religion because the preacher thinks heavy metal is the devil s music and Sidra doesn t see it that way. And in Saving Felicia : A postman in Athens named Larry gets berated by his sister for being another nobody then resuscitates an 18-month-old choking on a peanut. Key to Larry s inclusion here: He s the drummer in Curtis and Kent s band. Plus, that s Larry with an L, as in, in Larry s lyric, Loser, it s good enough for me.
In the book s brief closing story, The Elixir, we re five years passed Marcy s death, Sidra s off married (to Curtis?), Paul s finally legal and out on his own (with/without Kent?), and Florie s the narrator recalling the morning she found a hummingbird trailing the ground wrapped in cobwebs, horsehair, and dust a clear stand-in for Marcy during the worst of her illness ( bumping around the house, disoriented, looking for a door ) or a good measure of everyone (children, plus parents) inside these pages. Florie gets the bird free and gets it soaring, but it s Paul who d already gotten the last word in a good hundred pages sooner: It all comes home sooner or later. It doesn t matter what you do.
Sheri Joseph, who taught fiction writing at Morehead State University in Kentucky, is moving to Georgia State University in Atlanta in August, but she has family here in Memphis. It ll come home for her when Davis-Kidd Booksellers hosts a book signing for her on Wednesday, May 15th, at 6:30 p.m. And, pace Paul, sometimes as in short stories as novel, novel as short stories, in the best of those pages it does matter to readers of new writers, new fiction what you do. Call it what you will.