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Girl Trouble: Stories (P.S.)by Holly Goddard Jones
My Kentucky was never the land of thoroughbred horses and mint juleps; neither was it a place where hollowcheeked hillbillies gathered on the porches of shotgun houses to sip moonshine. There were gentle hills but not mountains, dilapidated farmhouses but plenty of cookie-cutter subdivisions too, and the folks I knew were generally more concerned about the fate of UK's basketball team than a bunch of racing horses owned by rich people.
Those other Kentuckys exist in some form or another, I'm sure — I can vouch now for the mint juleps, at least — but the land of my childhood was neither as romantic as the best stereotypes nor as hopeless as the worst. Western Kentucky isn't properly Southern or Midwestern, and it sure isn't Appalachian, though I sometimes run across Bobbie Ann Mason's name in Appalachian anthologies. If I could easily label it and be done, I probably wouldn't have set my entire book there. I certainly wouldn't have felt compelled to anchor these stories in a single, fictional Kentucky town, Roma, that I could populate with as many factories, barbecue joints, and festivals celebrating tobacco as I liked. Those are landmarks of my Kentucky, certainly, but so is Nashville, Tennessee, which figures large in this book as The City, the place to go if you want to be somewhere else. The border between southern Kentucky and Tennessee, like most borders, doesn't mean much unless it's Sunday and you need something alcoholic, or if you're paying sales tax; otherwise, we have towns, accents, and traditions that straddle the state line, even some nicknames: Tenntucky, Tuckasee.
The Kentucky in the pages of Girl Trouble is often, but not always, the Kentucky I know from experience. I’ve never seen a laptop computer in the joint upon which Gary's Pit Bar-B-Q is loosely based, but the spirit of that image is right, as is the character's sentiment, observing the business women "eating thick-piled pork barbecue sandwiches between spurts of typing on their laptops," that "his hometown could move on in some ways and stay the same where it counted." Despite the darkness of these stories, I've rendered the characters with as much empathy and depth as I know how to, so that there's great beauty alongside the ugliness. These characters contemplate the wisdom of Descartes and Johnny Cash. There's no reason why they shouldn't be able to.
My own home life was full of such juxtapositions. My parents, a factory worker and homemaker, were (and are) both avid readers, and their books were always scattered around the house, spread open on the edge of the bathtub or on the armrest of my father's recliner, so that I could dip in and out whenever I liked. I sampled my father’s Westerns, horror novels, and true crime books, my mother's mysteries, and these are the kinds of stories I loved before I found my way into reading and writing "serious" literature. We did most of our reading (and eating, for that matter) with the TV on — the TV was a constant — and that meant, for good or ill, that reading wasn't sacred in the Goddard household. It was as comfortable as a casserole, as entertaining as an episode of Roseanne. We made a weekly pilgrimage to the library the way some families go to Blockbuster.
But there was no doubt that my parents felt, for all of their nonchalance toward the act of reading, an authentic love of learning. When I would ask my father the meaning of a word, he would send me to the dictionary, which he kept under the end table beside his recliner. "Look it up," he told me, but he wasn't passing the buck; he was interested, and if I begged off or decided "it doesn't matter," he'd find the word himself and recite the definition, which I suspect he already knew, to me. He believed in the authority of a dictionary over his own explanation, and he believed in seeking out, working for, what you wanted to know. I thought often of my father when I engaged problems of intellect in Girl Trouble, when it seemed occasionally to me that I could get a lot of mileage out of an exaggerated regional voice or otherwise exploit my country setting. By that same token, I know I run the risk of falling into the opposite trap, the trap of idealizing — and characters like that Plato-quoting truck driver in "Allegory of a Cave" would support such a reading. Perhaps not, though. When I came home from my first college anthropology course thrilled by an essay called "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema," prepared to blow my father's mind, it took him about two lines to figure out the trick. "This is about Americans," he said in his usual dry way. I was deflated. But not surprised.
I know I run the risk of being labeled a "regional" writer and I'm not sure how I feel about that. I've been told, too, that I'm not regional enough. After reading from "Life Expectancy" at a tour to promote New Stories from the South 2007, an audience member approached me to complain that I hadn't written about "the landscape," which is a fair critique. You'll see a bit of landscape in Girl Trouble — the view from Pilot Rock, the "tangle of weeds and briars" outside Libby's door in "Retrospective" — but I don't do it generally, or I don't do it out of a need to pay sentimental homage. I like interior landscapes more, the terrain of a complex character psychology, and I hope that I honor where I'm from by acknowledging the hearts and intellects of my Kentuckians before I wax poetic about a red barn at sunset.
The Kentucky I know best can't be found in a wall calendar. It's the rusted antenna jutting up over an aluminum-sided ranch house, a gravel driveway with dandelions springing up in the thin spots, a red reflector marking the edge of that driveway, leaning on its metal stem like a dirty lollypop. It's my mother's cornbread: three ingredients, one of them lard, baked to miraculousness in a cast-iron skillet. I write this with the knowledge, exciting but bittersweet, that I'll be leaving Kentucky again in a few months to embark on a new job and life in North Carolina. I'll continue to live here in my fiction, though, as I work on a novel set on the same dark and bloody ground of Roma. It's a land too rich in goodness and sadness and infuriating contradiction to ever be exhaustible, and that's why I love it, and that's why it will always be home.
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