Loss leader

Jill McCorkle's joyful sorrow
By SUSAN CHAMANDY  |  September 30, 2009

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GRIEF COUNSELOR: McCorkle’s characters, though lost, eventually find their way.

Going Away Shoes | By Jill MCCorkle | Algonquin Books | 272 pages | $19.95
The stories in Jill McCorkle's new collection are about the battle to stay conscious and be truthful with yourself — to live beyond illusion. The protagonists, all women, are survivors of divorces, break-ups, serviceable but uninspired marriages, or should-have-been-but-never-happened love. Loss — of a parent or child, through death or simply emotional alienation — is recurrent.

These women have managed their disillusionment and grief as best they know how. They've ignored their troubles and soldiered on in sad marriages; they've repeated themselves again and again in sorry relationships, found other lives in front of the television, or relief in other people's confessions. One has become devoted to TV artist Bob Ross's paint-by-number lessons. It's grief suppressed — which only doubles its strength and multiplies the consequences. If McCorkle had left us there, there'd be nothing to talk about. But what's exciting about these stories, and enlivening, finally, is the feeling that you're watching these characters as they're just now opening up to their lives — mistakes, disappointments, and all. Many of them are in midlife, and that makes their awakenings particularly poignant. This is McCorkle's eighth book, her first since the 2001 collection Creatures of Habit, and it was well worth the wait.

In the best story, "Surrender," a woman is looking after her five-year-old granddaughter for the day, and it's sheer hell. The girl won't stop drawing naked pictures of her. Rose has just lost her son to a heart attack, and when she looks at her granddaughter, all she can feel is anger. "She hadn't wanted to keep the child to begin with but what was she to do?" In a brilliantly rendered epiphany, she sees that her son's rambunctious, vital spirit is still there with her, shot right through the family. It's in this child in front of her, it's in her husband, Hank, whom she adores. As she races to meet him at the door, an arrival she's been eager for all day as a relief from the child, she's transformed. "And of course she would hear her son again. She would always hear him. There in the darkness, a pant and a whimper, a sigh and a whisper, the softest breath of a windless night as she lay waiting for sleep, Hank there by her side, and now she could not get to him fast enough."

In "Another Dimension," a woman comes to terms with the effects of her mother's early death. McCorkle moves fluidly between present and past; when Ann, now middle-aged, runs into the tender-hearted, motherly woman she and her brother drove off as children — her father's "great chance at happiness, the chance for all of them to learn how it is supposed to feel" — her regret and longing are piercing. "Ann knew her own marriage would likely not make it another calendar year, and in that moment the grief for all that was lost to her was somehow housed in the soft body of this woman whose real name she didn't even remember if she ever knew it at all."

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