In this prize-winning collection of linked stories, outcasts and fuckups “dodge what dangers they can to survive in the midst of their aching loneliness.”
Belle Boggs’s Bakeless Prize-winning Mattaponi Queen moves quietly and with confidence. Boggs’s stories are connected subtly and organically, filled with damaged creatures who live out their tough, wise-cracking existences in Virginia’s semi-rural Mattaponi River region—in its reservation and nearby towns—where four hundred years ago stood the Mattaponi chief Powhattan, his daughter Pocahontas, her eventual husband John Smith, and English colonists who launched an era of violence still felt by Boggs’s people, Indian, white, and black alike. They define bittersweet:
Wayne “Skinny” Littleton lived with the expectation of not living much longer, but this had been going on for years now. Why don’t you just get on with it? his friend Bruce would ask… But the truth was he had gotten used to living. He had his regular customers with their steadily deteriorating vehicles, all dependent on him; he had his friends, his cooking shows. He had his house to work on, to finish; he wanted to put in a hot tub and a second bathroom. He had his kids, Erin and Tyler, who could hardly be called kids anymore and with whom he mostly communicated by telephone. He looked forward to the small things: Friday night bluegrass on the public radio station, driving across the reservation to Bruce’s house for supper, fishing the Mattaponi in his dented aluminum johnboat. His first beer of the morning, his last beer at night, and all the beers in the middle.
Skinny’s story, like nearly all the stories in Mattaponi Queen, deepens at the same time it enriches other connected stories throughout the collection. “Homecoming,” for example, the longest story of the collection—here, whip-smart and on the verge of becoming a state-ranked runner in New York City, Marcus comes to stay with his grandmother and attend King William High School after his mother gets arrested for selling drugs. He answers an ad that Skinny put in the paper: “Odd jobs for local mechanic. $8/hour. Plus you fix it, you can drive it home.” It soon becomes evident to Marcus that Skinny is “not what you’d expect… not skinny but giant and fat,” a devotee of the television show Molto Mario, and a car mechanic who can barely get his boot up on a bumper. In a deft turn, Skinny, a regretful fuck-up of a father to his own kids, ends up as the only soft landing left for Marcus, the quickly risen and now fast-falling star of his adopted high school’s homecoming. Skinny accomplishes it by doing the hard work of love—spending days cooking one superb, memorable meal for Marcus before their final goodbye to each other—and by cooking for other friends in other stories, meals he himself is too sick to eat.
Other such satisfying regularities appear as soon as the book opens. The story “Deer Season” begins, “On the first day of deer season the high school is deserted by all the boys.” It takes Boggs twelve words to point to one of the themes of the collection: desertion. On the same page we encounter “empty” and “absences,” as well as “softness and gentleness” in a deer that wanders up to a school window from the forest where all the boys are waiting to bag her. That softness and gentleness speaks to those students still left in school—the girls, the boys who don’t hunt, the sensitive outcasts who nevertheless make a home here, near “a forgotten and overgrown patch of brownish chickweed.” It isn’t the students but the narrator who notices the deer’s “newly hardened antlers, bone for locking against bone,” who knows they all have “found the safest place in the county, but of course [they don’t] know this, and [the deer] soon will run off again into the woods, where shots will be fired throughout the day and night.”
As if to say it’s risky, unknowable business, this living we do. As if to say all the fragile creatures of Boggs’s world—parents, children, husbands, and wives—dodge what dangers they can to survive in the midst of their aching loneliness. Sometimes they find grace. Always they aspire to be, as Loretta, a character in the title story, says, “neutral and regal” as a boxwood tree. From the soldier who gets sent home for losing an arm, to his young half-Mattaponi wife, Ronnie, who keeps her pregnancy a secret; Ronnie’s dad, the heartbroken Bruce, who faces his last years relaxing on the reservation; school principal Lila, who ruminates on a former boyfriend to avoid taking a chance on new opportunities; and Cutie Young, an old biddy who gets her silver stolen and forces her nurse (Loretta) to go town to town trying to reclaim it. Intimately familiar with the strange soil from which they grow, each of Boggs’s characters makes fine, heartbreaking attempts to do just that.
• Read “Imperial Chrysanthemum” in this spring’s Paris Review
• Read “Jonas” at Five Chapters
• Read “Opportunity” at StorySouth