This was a surprising book. In more ways than one. See, I’d bought The Cabal and Other Stories by Ellen Gilchrist on a whim. The jacket copy was intriguing, so were the praise, and the first pages posed a Why the hell not? feel to the purchase. And so I bought it.
Me and my poorly-informed book-buying has been rewarded, at least this once. The Cabal and Other Stories, a collection of a novella and five stories, was good. I began reading and just didn’t feel like stopping. It’s a compulsive read, no doubt due to its conversational storytelling, and the author’s uncanny knowledge as to when a catch a character unaware. The stories are set in close-knit Southern towns, and there’s an intimating voice to it all: the tone isn’t exactly gossip-y. It’s more like being allowed to witness to the foibles of close friends, because they trust you, and besides, it has its rewards.
I’m fumbling over something that’s already been said well. You know when you catch a review at the back of a book and you can only wholeheartedly agree? This is what Clay Smith of the Austin Chronicle wrote about this collection: “Gilchrist’s detailed eye catches her characters just as they are about to unravel, or sometimes as they consider unraveling Then she forces them to put themselves back together again. It’s great fun.” That’s exactly what I feel about this collection. Apir, Mr. Smith.
The 135-page novella “The Cabal” opens the collection well – it introduces us to Gilchrist’s small Mississipi town and a cast of characters that are a joy to sit with. The narrator’s preface explains the premise quite well:
This is the story of a group of people who had a bizarre and unexpected thing happen to them. Their psychiatrist went crazy and started injecting himself with drugs.
Nervous breakdown, manic episode, simply going wonky: Jim Jaspers, esteemed psychiatrist, takes off all his clothes at a funeral for the town doyenne, and starts yelling all his patients’ secrets for all the town to hear.
“Fuck you, William,” Jim yelled. “Did I call the Internal Revenue Service when you were making tax shelters out of nursing homes in Pearl? Did I call your wife when you screwed her in the divorce? Get your hands off me. I am enlightened and you are a speck of dust. This is freedom I am showing you. It did no good to tell you about it, so I’m showing you.”
Giggle. It’s a comedy of manners — see how the town reacts, intent on keeping their secrets close. Darkly comic too, but I’ve always been wonky with that definition: Do I think it’s dark because there’s so much death going on? So much quaint nastiness borne of self-preservation?
“For his own sake, he should get some help,” they kept saying.
“It wouldn’t be good for him to keep on working,” others said.
“Did he say anything about me?” everyone kept asking.
What strikes me about Gilchrist’s stories is the redemption often found in them. I suppose I’m so used to gloom and doom, I can only delight at happy-enough endings, which translates to I did my best, this will do. She does it well — it’s never saccharine, there are no sunny frou-frou epiphanies and ah-the-enlightened scenes with a sunset and bluebirds in the background. It’s just people making sense of their lives. And it was fun.
In two other stories I liked: “Hearts of Dixie” and “Survival of the Fittest” have characters we’ve met before — They’re flawed, neurotic, a little displaced. In one, there’s opportunity for infidelity, in other, general cheating and tax evasion altogether. Again, fun. Gilchrist turns the tables on the reader by giving a comic tone to the stories. It’s something I can’t quite put my finger on, but it’s there. I feel it.
Oh, and good news for the short-story-shy: In Cabal, the stories are linked: A common misgiving [I’ve found around the interwebz] re short fiction is how they only leave the reader bereft, even unsatisfied. Though I’d still rally for the richness found in a well-executed twenty pages, Gilchrist’s collection serves as a nice transition between the novel-length [and the form’s central story arcs] and your usual standalone short stories. It’s an easing in, of sorts. And so, the linking, sometimes with just the setting, sometimes a minor character in one story gets center stage in another, and sometimes the major character of one gets explored better in one more story. Yum. It’s a good thing: Gilchrist makes lush characters, very endearing character. They’re flawed, darkly comically so, and there’s this certain voyeuristic pleasure in seeing them go at life again.
The bottom line: It was fun, it was refreshing, and I won’t say no to a Gilchrist collection if I saw it in BookSale. I mean, come on, why have I stayed away so long?