Kelly Cherry’s ‘Twelve Women in a Country Called America’

by Jessie Van Rheenen

Twelve Women in a Country Called America
by Kelly Cherry
Press 53, 232 pp., $19.95

In her latest story collection, Twelve Women in a Country Called America, Kelly Cherry pays homage to a sense of place and the intangible, haunting power it holds for her characters. The women—and men—who populate these pages may live in Richmond, Dallas, Memphis, or Huntsville, Alabama, but the twelve very different stories are nonetheless united by locations which at times hold the same sway and emotional power as people. Cherry’s characters act or fail to act, make choices and break promises, all against a vast landscape of the bustling cities and out-of-the-way corners of the South.

In addition to nine other works of fiction, Cherry has published well over a dozen chapbooks and books of poetry, not to mention served as Poet Laureate of Virginia, and it shows in the versatility of her language. Her ease across genres makes for a highly effective fictional atmosphere, combined with textured dialogue and momentum to draw us through scene and summary alike. When she describes the hills of Texas as “green and rolling and the sky as wide as memory,” or a January day in Tallahassee so hot that “all over town, the palmettos, the poinsettias in big pots look as if they’d burn your fingertips if you touched them,” Cherry demonstrates an agility that keeps her prose varied and fresh throughout the collection.

Her language surprises with its dry humor and regional playfulness—whether using slogans from church marquees as section dividers and thematic guides in the story “Serious Love” (“IN THE DARK? FOLLOW THE SON,” “PRAYER WITHOUT FAITH IS WISHFUL THINKING”), or concluding a list in the same story with the tongue-in-cheek declaration, “A Texas gal had to know her way around superlatives.” The geographical bent of these stories is often unmistakable: running through a pageant contestant’s local wins in “Famousness,” we are treated to such titles as “Miss Fried Okra” and “Miss Delta Deltoids.”

Yet it is in the details of daily existence—and the mental processes and impulses which accompany these moments—that Cherry’s writing especially captivates. All told from a third person point of view, her stories often move between more omniscient narration and free indirect speech, thereby giving us access to characters’ minds and voices while allowing Cherry the opportunity to look at fascinating questions of psychology and morality.

In “Mother’s Day,” for example, a woman fixes lunch for her husband, adult son, and the surprise guest of her artist-lover. She discusses her family’s prized antebellum bowl while engaging in an escalating game of footsie under the table, which ends with “sweet tea in a puddle that soaked her silk sleeves and spread to her guests’ plates.” Cherry’s selection of details in this scene, like the protagonist’s sleeves “dripping” with tea as she sits alone at the table, is wonderfully sensory in a way that does not call attention to itself. “Mother’s Day” manages to capture one woman’s attitude toward her marriage, Charleston social life, sexual adventures, and approach to motherhood in just ten remarkably well-wrought and paced pages.

Cherry’s stories also skillfully explore the notion of time. In “The Piano Lesson,” ten-year-old Jessie explicitly wonders about the present and past, trying to parse their meaning: “The past, she thought next, was where history was…if history wasn’t in the past, it would keep getting in the way. We’d be constantly bumping into dead kings and fighting wars that had been won or lost long ago. No, history was not the problem; the problem was the past that just now made room for the present.” Jessie’s search for answers serves as a framework for the action of the story—a highly unusual Thanksgiving piano lesson—and brings us into her youthful meditation in a satisfying, charming way.

This contemplation of and movement through time takes other forms in the collection, with Cherry making full use of past, present, and future tenses. In another story, “Her Life to Come,” the narrative begins in the present, then shifts to the future tense for the majority of the story—a type of projection handled with great authority. But the seeming expansiveness of the future is nevertheless limited, and with the very last line in “Her Life to Come,” Cherry convincingly cycles us back to the present and the opening scene of the story.

Through her interweaving of past with present, Cherry further questions the power of recollection and the immutability of social, particularly familial, roles. Many of her stories feature multigenerational relationships, and we as readers get a powerful sense of questions reverberating through time. Some storylines even play with the realism permeating most of the collection and begin to take on the feel of fable or myth, with narrators adopting an almost-prophetic tone. Perhaps as a result, some of the stories at times rely more heavily on exposition than scene. Although this choice may on the surface seem at the cost of dramatic action in the present, Cherry is an author with the power to freeze these moments—and a consciousness to connect us to characters through backstory, to defy more linear, temporal expectations. As one of her protagonists who teaches classical literature notes, “what she loved about the ancients” was “the way they had of stopping time by turning it into a story.”

With generosity and affection for her characters, Cherry captures some of the immense variety of individual experience in the South and beyond—whether gay, straight, young, old, wheelchair-bound, artistic or familial. Through her control over language and time, Cherry both replicates and improves upon the rhythm of life, that “unbottled perfume of the South, its heady mix of sea salt and myrtle, memory and desire.” We access a dozen snapshots of daily existence infused with a jolt of the wonderful, the tragic, or the downright strange. Twelve Women in a Country Called America ends with a middle-aged divorcee offering up a toast “to life…wherever and however it occurs.” And with these nuanced stories, Kelly Cherry has succeeded in doing just that.