In her ninth book and second collection of short stories, Lee Smith fulfills some but not all of Faulkner’s commands in Absalom, Absalom!: ”Tell me about the South.” Check. ”What’s it like there.” Check. ”What do they do there.” Check. ”Why do they live at all.” Oops.
Smith knows her literary landscape. This is a place where people are named Cherry, Darnell, and Tammy Lynn; belong to the Sub-Deb Club and the UFO Club; live in Swiss Chalet Apartments; work at the Fabric Barn, Linens ‘n’ Things, and Tanfastic. A few of these people have marvelous voices. Listen to Missie, the maid in ”Tongues of Fire,” describing the nervous breakdown of her employer: ”He have lost his starch, is all. He be getting it back directly.” But Missie is an exception. Everyone else seems to be depressed, dim-witted, and/or dying or dead of cancer.
This makes the book’s few flashes of humor welcome. Here is Karen from ”Tongues of Fire”: ”One thing you never wanted to do with Grandmother was ask her how she felt — she’d tell you, gross details you didn’t want to know.” There’s also one successfully funny story, ”Desire on Domino Island,” a parody of a Silhouette Romance.
All in all, however, Me and My Baby is a hard row to hoe. Fake epiphanies abound, in such stories as ”Bob, a Dog” (divorced mom with bad taste in men and a badly behaved dog laughs at it all) and ”Life on the Moon” (priggish divorced mom with bad taste in men remembers the night of the moon landing and forgives her ”bad” cousin). Others just trail off or seem half-baked.
The best of Smith’s previous work, including the lively Fancy Strut, gives a sense of the range, sass, and smarts of Southerners. It explains ”why do they live at all.” Me and My Baby makes you think, if this is the South, let me out. C