cover image News of the Spirit

News of the Spirit

Lee Smith. Putnam Adult, $23.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-399-14281-9

Many of the Southern women in Smith's latest collection of short fiction (following the novels Saving Grace and The Christmas Letters) view storytelling as a means of survival. In prose that's direct and simple, by turns bitterly funny and lyrical, Smith inhabits the voices of women young and old as they try to muddle through the chaos of their lives. In two coming-of-age stories, ""The Bubba Stories"" and ""Live Bottomless,"" college student Charlene and 13-year-old Jenny portray themselves and their worlds (mid-1960s collegiate life and late '50s suburbia, respectively) with steely humor and an unrelenting eye. For these two aspiring writer types, storytelling and identity are deeply intertwined. The same goes for the long-estranged twins, Paula and Johnny, of the title story, who find that the deep connection between them has its origins in the storytelling and make-believe play of their childhood. And in ""The Happy Memories Club,"" a moribund nursing home resident finds that writing down her life story is the only way she can recover the acerbic but passionate self she's repressed for so long. Smith excels at creating characters somewhat boggled by the reality of who they've become--by their lovers and homes, their jobs and their cars, haircuts and bodies--and who, consequently, feel a pressing need to explain themselves to themselves. One thing they never doubt is the correctness of their opinions, especially concerning the proper standards of behavior for a Southern lady, and the failings of ""white trash."" Smith's humor is pointed but gentle; her characters may be priggish and narrow-minded, but they are never mean. These five narratives are packed with period details (one family has a bomb shelter, a typical 1950s phenomenon) and social observations (the time when wearing blue jeans ""meant you were poor"") that unobtrusively propel and add texture to the story lines. Such obsession with detail makes Smith's heroines both distinctively Southern and universally feminine. Author tour. (Sept.)