Elizabeth Cox's Stories Find Calm in the Center of the Storm

Review of Bargains in the Real World By Conan Putnam
Chicago Tribune, March 11, 2001

Elizabeth Cox is not afraid to look on the bright side. In her first collection of short stories, "Bargains in the Real World," she takes familiar themes--child abuse, adolescent sexuality, divorce and death--and infuses them with grace notes of redemption. Set mostly in the rural South, these stories read like tales of mixed-up confusion retold from a calmer, less-troubled perspective.

Cox achieves this overall steadiness of mood by inventing narrators who stick close to the bones of what they have to tell. Flashbacks are brief and to the point, and though her protagonists struggle with complex, life-altering questions, they clearly do not relish digging into the gory details. Such economies of scale and mood are difficult to sustain in what no less an expert practitioner of the form than William Trevor has called "the art of the glimpse," but Cox, who has also written three novels, manages to pull it off. Of the 13 stories in the collection, most are fewer than 20 pages long.

In the title story, Ernie, fiftyish, divorced and on the brink of remarriage, goes into the woods with his 13-year-old son to find his son's best friend, Lucas, who has a habit of skipping school to hunt rabbits and sneak whiskey in an old, abandoned shack. Having been adopted by a greedy, unloving couple after his "real" parents' death four years earlier in a car crash, "Lucas was the kind of boy who might hurt himself," the reader is told. Ernie, feeling protective, aims to keep the boy from harm, and in the process experiences a moment of spiritual awakening:

"While they were sitting [in the shack], something incredible happened. The sun was going down, so there was no reason for there to be so much light. But for what seemed a full minute, a light came in from an angle higher than where the sun was. Spangles of light flew all around them . . . nothing seemed real, except for the moment."

Afterward, energized by the memory of this unaccountably bright light, Ernie and his son assist Lucas in burying animal bones in a clearing and bow their heads in silence while the boy prays over the grave in a symbolic re-enactment of his parents' funeral, which he had refused to attend.

Most of Cox's characters suffer an extreme reluctance to let go of old sorrows; all harbor a trapped hunger for love that craves release in physical intimacy. With chilling wistfulness, characters recall scenes of abuse during childhood in which their tormentors lift them into the air and fondle them, marking them for life with psychic scars that can never be healed. In "The Singers, 1949," the 9-year- old daughter of a boarding-school teacher, exploring a basement laundry room normally locked with a chain, encounters a stranger who gropes her in the dark, then lets her go when a laundress enters the room. The sound of the laundry room doors being locked marks the beginning of the dazed aftermath:

"Outside, I stood by the tree and tried to decide if I was different or the same. Even when the doors were completely shut and the chains wrapped around the knobs, I could hear them through the small window. I have heard them for all my life."

In two other stories, "Saved" and "Biology," teenage girls are similarly disillusioned after trying on the idea of sex with older men as a means of spiritual enlightenment. Evie, the 15-year-old protagonist of "Biology," falls for Rev. Warner James the moment she lays eyes on the poster announcing the arrival of his All-Churches Revival meeting in her small, Southern town. This is a promising opening, touching on larger questions of adolescent identity and the links between physical and spiritual love, but, perhaps because of the limitations of the short form, Cox is forced to treat these themes sketchily. At times, Evie's confusion is transmitted to the reader in passages that obscure rather than illuminate her emotional state:

"Some nights I could crawl into the moon and live for a short time in its reflected light. Private secrets were being kept in the pockets of my robe, and a certain signal from outside, a bugle sound from a new bird, could release my hunger from its hurt world. I wanted to ask someone for food." The prose is calm, the images are entrancing, but the meaning seems somehow choked off, deprived of room to grow.

In "A Sounding Brass," Ginny, mother of two, is widowed when her husband is accidentally shot in the woods outside the cabin where the family is vacationing. Like Ernie in the title story, she experiences a spiritual awakening brought on by light emanating from a mysterious source:

"The road held a brightness that made her squint. When she looked up to see where the light was coming from, she saw no break in the clouds, and when she looked back at the road she thought the light must be coming from somewhere beneath it. . . .

"She wanted to keep driving . . . to prolong the elation that came as light rose from a place she did not expect, the road shimmering in front of her like a pond or a path she had chosen."

These stories, most of which have been published in literary reviews, contain many such passages of lyrical intensity that are full of exhilaration, but do not resonate in any overall pattern of meaning. The theme of seeing the light, for instance, suggests endless possibilities for conflict and resolution. But though the light is by turns referred to as "weird," and "furious," its transforming power never results in any of Cox's characters' seeing life from the odd or surprising angle of vision that can make a story truly gripping. The same constraints that preclude exploration of the larger mysteries that these stories so tantalizingly touch upon-- mysteries of faith, memory and forgiveness, to name a few--may also account for their life-affirming, unambiguous endings.

© Chicago Tribune, 2001