Residents And Transients by Bobbie Ann Mason, 1982
The magic trick:
Making the reader feel rural western Kentucky
In many ways, I should have the same complaints about a story like this that I gladly voice when it comes to Ann Beattie’s fiction. It’s super self-absorbed, the protagonist we are absorbing never demonstrates any characteristics that would warrant the attention we are giving her, and, worst of all, nothing happens.
But I like this story whereas I dislike most of the Beattie stories I read.
One, Beattie always seems hellbent on proving to you how cool she is, which I just don’t have time for. And two, Mason is a master of setting. I don’t really care that nothing happens in this story. I’m just happy to drop in on her world in western Kentucky. Now, some of that is my own prejudice. I just don’t care about Beattie’s tales of east coast elites. Ironically enough, I now live in the same Chevy Chase D.C. neighborhood she is from, but I’m not elite and I certainly don’t care to read about their boring parties. Western Kentucky, meanwhile, is far more interesting.
Beyond by own preference, though, Mason is excellent at that cliché of making the setting a character. The narrator and her husband are separated by the distance between her farmhouse and Louisville. Her lifestyle seems to embody her surroundings – passive, regressive, low-stress, do-it-yourself. The cats at the farmhouse are a nice touch too.
Five years from now, I won’t remember what happens in this story, but I just might recall the feeling of the place. And that’s quite a trick on Mason’s part.
“I can’t imagine living on a street again,” I said to my husband. I complained for weeks about living with houses within view. I need cornfields. When my parents left for Florida, Stephen and I moved into their old farmhouse, to take care of it for them. I love its stateliness, the way it rises up from the fields like a patch of mutant jimsonweeds. I’m fond of the old white wood siding, the sagging outbuildings. But the house will be sold this winter, after the corn is picked, and by then I will have to go to Louisville. I promised my parents I would handle the household auction because I knew my mother could not bear to be involved. She told me many times about a widow who had sold off her belongings and afterward stayed alone in the empty house until she had to be dragged away. Within a year, she died of cancer. Mother said to me, “Heartbreak brings on cancer.” She went away to Florida, leaving everything the way it was, as though she had only gone shopping.
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