Eleven stories from Jill McCorkle show the humor to be found in desperation—and vice versa.
Going Away Shoes—Jill McCorkle’s first short story collection in eight years—is comprised of eleven stories, each of which introduces the reader to a woman who, in some way or another, feels trapped in her life or situation. These characters yearn for something better—or, at the very least, different—and range in circumstances from a wife who never stopped loving the boyfriend of her youth (“Driving to the Moon”) to a divorcee writing a brutally honest letter to her former marriage counselor (“PS”) to a lonely woman fantasizing that the stranger who left his truck parked in her yard might just be her soul mate (“Me and Bigfoot”).
Yet, despite their differences, all of these women seem to be having come-to-Jesus moments, giving their lives honest appraisals, perhaps for the first time, and trying to make sense of what has become of them. It is from that unflinching honesty and perception that the power of McCorkle’s fantastic collection derives. No shrinking violets here, and instead of the “quiet desperation” we so often see in literature (especially short fiction), McCorkle’s characters often have about them a very loud desperation.
Take for example the following passage from “Driving to the Moon,” in which the protagonist, now married with children, is contacted by the man she never stopped loving:
She looked down at her calendar as he talked. Her youngest son had varsity soccer tryouts and the oldest, a sophomore at Clemson, has planned to come home for the weekend. Her husband had to lecture out of town. The library where she worked in special collections was under construction and she had promised to work extra hours to get everything organized. In a movie, life would stop for such an event, but it doesn’t happen in reality. People bury spouses and go right back to work. Disasters happen and people pay their bills and go to the grocery store. In her mind she imagined the drive—just under three hours—she could get up early and make a day of it; she could rearrange a couple of things and be back in plenty of time to take the kids out to dinner and wash all the laundry her son would bring home from college.
Here and elsewhere, readers get the sense that McCorkle’s heroes feel as if this might be their last good chance to act out, to effect some change in their lives, or correct some missed opportunity or mistake. And they’ll be damned if they’re going to let it slip on by.
In perhaps the most heartbreaking story in the book (“Intervention,” selected by Lorrie Moore for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2004), a guilt-stricken woman struggles to decide whether confronting her forgiving husband for his drinking would constitute one more betrayal. That conflict is captured perfectly in the very first paragraph:
The intervention is not Marilyn’s idea but it might as well be. She is the one who has talked too much. And she has agreed to go along with it, nodding and murmuring “all right” into the receiver while Sid dozes in front of the evening news. Things are so horrible all over the world that it makes them feel lucky just to be alive. Sid is sixty-five. He is retired. He is disappearing before her very eyes.
Like much of this collection, “Intervention” presents the reader with a woman whose back is against the wall. That she comes out fighting is what makes her—and many of McCorkle’s characters—so compelling. Even when they make bad choices, you can’t help but cheer for them.
These are certainly not comic stories—at least, not primarily—but, like Moore, McCorkle couldn’t not be funny, even if she wanted to. Writers who are able to make us laugh out loud are often viewed with unjust suspicion, as some readers seem to fear that humor is somehow “unliterary, ” that what makes us laugh cannot also be profound. That’s nonsense, of course, and the dark humor contained in these stories testifies to what Shakespeare knew well: that humor has the power to expose as much about our struggles and our pains as it does about our triumphs and our joys. Jill McCorkle has that rare ability to hit you from both directions at once, and Going Away Shoes is a fitting testament to her awesome talents.