Mining the vagaries of rural America. Bobbie Ann Mason's characters are `just plain folks' like herself
WHEN writer Bobbie Ann Mason's first book of short stories, ``Shiloh and Other Stories,'' was published in 1982 to unanimously good reviews, the author was launched as a minor literary celebrity. That year she won a major fiction award and was a finalist for three others. Four years later, the Kirkus Reviews pronounced Ms. Mason's first full-length book, ``In Country,'' ``a very major American novel.'' This time the author fought back. ``I went around kidding about my `very major cat, my very major house.' I couldn't believe I'd written a `very major American novel,' '' says this Kentucky-born author with ``Aw-shucks'' self-effacement. ``I guess [success] is what every [writer] hopes for. But no human being ought to have that much attention.''Skip to next paragraph
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This metaphorical shrug of the shoulders is characteristic of Mason, a slight, soft-spoken woman whose laconic prose and blue-collar characters are as purposefully just-plain-folks as their author.
During an interview here, she perches on the edge of her seat, speaking thoughtfully about her work in her slightly twangy voice, interrupting herself occasionally to insist, ``I don't know what I'm talking about.'' Belying this is her quiet integrity and her birdlike eyes, which miss nothing.
In the six years Mason has been writing fiction, her literary probings of her native Kentucky have earned her a place now much in vogue with literary sophisticates.
Along with fellow writers Jayne Anne Phillips (``Machine Dreams'') and Carolyn Chute (``The Beans of Egypt, Maine''), Mason has successfully mined the vagaries of 20th-century rural America.
The resulting body of largely short fiction (which itself helped spark a recent revival in the short-story form) has been labeled ``shopping mall realism'' and ``truth among the trailer parks.'' Mason's seamless inclusion of popular culture references within her fiction uniquely colors her view of the new-wave South. This ``bleaching out of local color,'' as one reviewer put it, is one of the author's biggest themes.
``My characters live in a world in which television and popular music are an intimate part of their lives, and I take that seriously,'' she says. ``I think I can understand why they watch what they watch on TV, what music means to them, and what it means in a relatively isolated region to have a new shopping mall.''
Mason's lack of condescension and sentimentality toward her characters is buried in her own geographic roots. ``I've gone exactly the same trail: grown up on pop music, wanted to go to the big city so I could buy things,'' she says.
``It's very materialistic. But that is not to be confused with a celebration of consumerism.''
Indeed, this substitution of an agrarian, small-town past with a fast-food, K mart present hints at a larger social transition. Mason's protagonists frequently reel from a tangible, albeit regional, sense of loss. ``The outside influences are creeping in,'' Mason explains. ``The small family farm is dying; people's lives are being dislocated.''
It is in this new novel, however, that the author takes this dislocation a step further. Similar to ``Machine Dreams,'' Ms. Phillips's first novel, Mason's ``In Country'' traces the collective impact of the Vietnam war on ordinary, working-class lives.