'Bargains' gives old tales new twists

Review of Bargains in the Real World By Amy Graves
The Boston Globe, April 2, 2001

Some of the titles for these 13 stories of love, misunderstandings, good and bad luck, set mainly in the rural South, read like labels you might see on used clothing: "Washed," "Saved," "Stolen."

The stories take old, familiar subjects - growing up, the estrangement of husbands and wives, the bond of parents and children - and almost without fail find some new twist.

"Bargains in the Real World," Elizabeth Cox's fourth book, could be described collectively as the pacts people make with themselves and each other to keep going. It leads off with "The Third of July," in which Nadine decides to leave Harold, her husband of 30 years. "That night, Nadine couldn't sleep. She lay next to Harold beneath the sheet and wondered how her life would be without him. If she left, it would have to be quickly and quietly, as though there had been a murder she could do nothing about."

She leaves, and it isn't until she sees a car accident and rushes to help the injured family involved that she's jolted awake by what she's done to her old life.

Her marriage brings to mind John Steinbeck's story "Chrysanthemums" in which a woman struggles to reconcile herself to a rural life with her husband, whose inability to relate to her makes her dream of escaping with a traveling housewares salesman.

Like Steinbeck, Cox doesn't give anything away too soon. She writes obliquely and brings her characters' contradictory actions and feelings all together without obvious emphasis. Her endings often turn out much more surprising and real as a result.

Her last novel, "Night Talk," about girlhood friends, one white, one black, growing up in Mercy, Ga., is an intricate exploration of race and the only of her novels now in print. Race relations are prominent in one story in this collection, "The Singers, 1949." Jenny lives at the boarding school where her mother teaches. Her closest friends are the black women and men who run the laundry service on campus. Like Nadine Gordimer or Flannery O'Connor, Cox offers no polemics about race, simply details about how they might have coexisted.

Short stories have to do a lot of heavy lifting, and quickly, to build a sense of character, time and place, and mood. Almost all of stories in this collection do that work, starting with the opening line. Some lead with the action; others paint the picture languidly and build suspense slowly. The tension in these stories proves palpable even if in some cases not much happens.

"Washed" has one of the more memorable opening lines in this collection: "Until recently Ariel Dawson thought that love was a lie." The line doesn't spell out where this story is headed, but it generates enough curiosity to make us keep reading. Ariel turns out to be a 27-year-old manager of a restaurant in a small town three hours from Raleigh, N.C. She's dating two men and is crazy about one of them, Sam, but her feelings for him make her wary.

One day she sees SOMEBODY LOVES YOU written in chalk on her sidewalk. The story doesn't overdramatize the moment and still manages to convey its effect on her. "Ariel tried to picture someone actually writing the words. She thought of the emotion behind the act. The words seemed part of her yard, her house, and she felt the personal import of the message. . ."

Among the several stories about growing up, four stand out: "Old Court," set in the post-Civil War South; "The Last Fourth Grade," which concerns a beloved teacher imprisoned for murdering her pedophile husband; "Stolen"; and "Saved."

"Stolen" starts with a man jumping off a bridge, a cliche that's almost enough to make you skip to the next story. Cox redeems it by showing how his death and the investigation fuel town gossip and bring an end to his family's sense of belonging.

Cox grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., and teaches writing at Duke University and Bennington College. For her, writing begins with the unexpected, and seems to end there, too.

"I begin with a subject or a situation that I'm really caught by," she has said in an interview. "I try to pick something I'm caught by and I don't understand. What I know at the beginning is never the same as what I know at the end."

© The Boston Globe, 2001