Friday, July 16, 2010
Friday's "Forgotten" Books: FAST LANES by Jayne Anne Phillips (Dutton 1987); QUICK SHOTS OF FALSE HOPE by Laura Kightlinger (Avon 1999)
Laura Kightlinger's Quick Shots of False Hope: A Rejection Collection is a partially fictionalized memoir, apparently accounts of most of the more outrageously affective incidents in her life up till the date of publication (she was thirty when it was published, and in the midst of her television sitcom-writing career); Jayne Anne Phillips's Fast Lanes is her third collection of short stories. I didn't begin to suspect how much they would echo each other in incident and occasionally tone, when I read them back to back over this last busy and not particularly well-rested week. (That last is a warning and an apology in all senses...I'm still thinking about these, as best as my tired mind can.)
Kightlinger is a challenging and frequently brilliant comedian and scriptwriter; she was apparently the child of a woman conducting a decades-long affair with a married man who did little if anything to support Kightlinger or her mother, in any way, aside from regular visits to come get laid some more. In the small town of Fayetteville (standing in for several towns and small cities according to various mutually contradicting online sources), Kightlinger makes her way past high-school talent shows (after somewhat greater success as a mainspring of the Drama Club) and the joys of working at the Ponderosa Steak House, and on to college and the beginnings of her intentionally comedic performance and writing career. She manages to fail upwards in some key and helpful ways, being fired from Tom Arnold's first sitcom as a cast member only to be offered her first professional writing gig, on Roseanne, to soften the blow...not the worst bargain anyone has ever made. But the early rejections and embarassments don't help her feel any better about the later ones, even if she has honed her coping mechanisms...perhaps because of the stated nature of the book, she doesn't dwell much on the development of her craft, though it is touched on, from her college career up to about the time she joins the staff and cast of Will and Grace.
Phillips's stories focus mostly on young women who are at least as lost and uncomfortable in their lives as Kightlinger was (and to some extent perhaps remains), but like her are mostly coping, even when the scars show...in the course of the seven short stories here, we have a young woman covertly moving to and around in a small town while pregnant by her married lover, a young woman moving through group houses as she makes her bread working in a Bonanza Steak House (I believe this was the same chain either at different times or in different states) and consults tarot readers (less surprising in Phillips's latter-day hippy character than in the seemingly cynically rationalistic Kightlinger), and the general sense of "non-traditional" and "broken" families that are nonetheless making their lives as they might, in working-class/lower-middle-class America. What Kightlinger refers to as "white-trash" heavenly pleasures, and not entirely dismissively, recur in the Phillips, which somewhat oddly opens and closes with what might be the weakest stories (a first-person ramble from the POV of an alienated young man to start, "How Mickey Made It," and a slightly less convincing turn of the 20th Century historical fiction, "Bess," less convincing than the contemporary and near-past historicals that comprise what comes before in the book), though perhaps the greatest challenges to write. Her prose in "Bluegill," particularly, which slowly lets the reader know that it's the story of the pregnant, and financially "kept," mistress in a new small town, has prose as fiercely and initially opaquely elegant as Avram Davidson's or Jack Vance's or Edith Wharton's or Anthony Burgess's, though Phillips more frequently strives here for utmost clarity, with strong resonances of the sexual and other tensions life holds for her characters. Unlike the Kightlinger, the Phillips is in print...barely (a 1990 reprint edition from Vintage). I read the Faber & Faber paperback, its first UK edition, but clearly struck from US plates.
For more Friday "forgotten" books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.