Pam Durban: Facing reality with a wide-open eye
by Rob Neufeld
John Updike honored Pam Durban’s story, “Soon,” by selecting it for his anthology, “The Best American Short Stories of the Century.” Now, it’s one of 11 included in Durban’s new volume, also titled “Soon.”
“Soon,” the short story, is a marvel of character development over 100 years. Another story, “Birth Mother,” also deserves top honors. It gives us a memorable look into the mind and heart of an adopted boy.
Durban presents her story collection, “Soon” (U. of South Carolina Pr.) at Malaprop’s Bookstore, 7 p.m., Mon., Aug, 24. It’s the fifth book by the Aiken, S.C. native and Doris Betts Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UNC Chapel Hill.
Durban does not delay setting the hook. For example, “Soon” puts its claw into us with its first sentence, a frightening picture of how a parent shapes a child.
“Elizabeth Long Crawford was born with a lazy eye,” the tale begins, “and so, one morning when she was twelve, her father and the doctor sat her down in the dining room at Marlcrest, the Long family place near Augusta, Georgia, and told her they were going to fix her so a man would want to marry her someday.”
Doc botches the cut; Elizabeth becomes blind in one eye, and squinty. Nonetheless, when she comes of age, she marries, her husband, Perry Crawford, moving in with her at Marlcrest, a place where slaves had once died hauling muck to cover fields.
Fifty years, period
By the end of the second page, Perry has died of a stroke in a duck blind, and has left behind two children, Perry Jr., a mediocre self-deluder, and Martha, a horse-faced self-denier, or so Elizabeth thinks in her embitterment, seething in a nursing home.
Durban moves quickly through history by pegging her plot to timeless moments. For instance:
Elizabeth summons her children to the nursing home and, “smiling brilliantly,” hands over documents that prove “she’d sold Marlcrest...to a developer who would bulldoze the house.”
As for the contents, she adds, with color in her cheeks, “she’d sold them all to a young man from a southern history museum in Atlanta.” Then the crone strikes the wheelchair’s armrest, and proclaims, “Done.”
Three months later, Elizabeth dies, and Part 1 of the five-part drama ends.
The daughter’s progress
“Soon” soon becomes the story of Martha’s attempts to suppress longings and hope.
She weds Raymond, a salesman, and lives a ritualized middle-class life. Then, Durban’s next indelible moment:
Martha is applying ointment to Raymond after his return from a long trip, and notices the paleness of his left arm, revealing how it hadn’t been hanging out the driver’s side window, as usual. She checks phone records, discovers an affair, and sends him packing.
Martha, we can see, is booked for a long, transformational life journey.
She eventually gravitates to her and Raymond’s mountain cabin on Scaly Mountain, near Highlands, and the story opens to the longest episode: Martha’s successful organization of a family reunion.
One of the scenes in that part illustrates how persuasively Durban creates so-particular-it-must-be-true realism.
Up ahead in the narrative, Martha’s grandniece will return to Scaly Mountain 25 years later; and then, with a jump back, we’ll see Martha achieving a revelation at a mountain woman’s funeral. But for now, let’s zoom in on a donkey’s nose.
Defeat of the anti-hope
We’re at the reunion. Martha has astonished Perry Jr. by refusing him a little cream for his coffee. It’s for the blackberry pie! she insists.
People are eating and mingling. Abel Rankin shows up with a delivery of raw milk. Martha brings him food and, while he eats, pats his mule’s nose.
“When the children came running to pat the mule,” Durban writes, “(Martha) took charge. She instructed them on gentleness, and gave them this hint: “You want him to remember you? Blow into his nostrils. Gently, gently, you hear me talking to you?”
Then, Martha realizes, “Those were her mother’s teachings, her mother’s actual words.”
The transmission of horrific parental influence at the story’s start—the eye mutiliation—is now offset by a loving one. But it’s double-edged. The love that Martha’s mom had poured toward animals rarely reached Martha, and Martha recognizes her perpetual hunger for that source of goodness.
The pulse of Soon
The title, “Soon,” by the way, relates to a scene in which Elizabeth keeps asking to have her poodle, which has died, brought to her at her nursing home.
“Why don’t you bring my little dog to see me?” she would sob.
“Soon, Mother,” her children would promise.
Loss, longing, and transformation form the big picture in Durban’s stories, involving divorced, widowed, and empty-nested women, with a few exceptions. “Hush” presents a middle-aged man dying of cancer who gets a god-like question from the mouth of a tourist in “Mammoth Cave.”
“Birth Mother,” a boy’s account, is a perfection of story design. The joy in perceiving such beauty in Durban’s renderings of the all-too-human should transform readers’ sense of mournfulness.
Inside a head
Whereas the story, “Soon,” moves rapidly through time, “Birth Mother” takes up hardly any time at all.
Cody, age 10, and his sister, Beth, age 7, are in the back seat of a car on a trip with their newly adoptive father, the “giant,” and mother, the “princess,” to the a friends’ place in Michigan.
Cody has gone into “trip coma,” as his new mom affectionally calls it, but really what he’s doing is dwelling on his birth mom, with whom he had had a very close bond.
So, the first several scenes in the story are inside Cody’s head. We learn a lot about his family, including how his mom had gone to a “shelter” before he and Beth were taken away and placed in a new home.
“Motor City!” the new dad now shouts, as the car passes Detroit. The new dad’s singing of a Detroit blues song serves to send Cody inside his head to relive a memory of Jerry, his mom’s mean boyfriend, who had come to their house to stay, “singing like he thought he was good at it.”
The car arrives at the Bradley house; and the story frees itself from Cody’s mind to relate a scene of storytelling around a campfire as the Milky Way appears above.
The new mom tells about the time when she and her husband had eluded a tornado in their car. Then, the new dad (he and the new mom go unnamed) says, “Your turn, Cody.”
Cody, deadpan, unspools his life’s movie, except for the most revealing detail, which Durban has Cody reveal for our eyes only.
That’s not the end. Durban likes to leave us with an ambiguous moral. In “Soon,” it’s Martha thinking about the seeds in withered apples. In “Birth Mother,” it’s...well, I won’t tell you. With Durban, there is philosophical suspense as well as dramatic.
Pam Durban present her story collection, “Soon,” 7 p.m., Aug, 24 at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville (254-6734).