Mining the vagaries of rural America. Bobbie Ann Mason's characters are `just plain folks' like herself

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.''

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.

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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.

Again, similar to Phillips, Mason approaches the traditionally male-dominated subject through the eyes of a female protagonist -- in this case, 17-year-old Samantha Hughes, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran who was killed shortly before her birth.

Now living with her Uncle Emmett, another veteran and one who she suspects is a victim of Agent Orange, Sam (as she is called) confronts both the war and her parents' generation. It is inimical to Mason's vision that this coming to terms occurs within the boundaries of popular culture -- particularly rock-and-roll.

``Sam is trying to make a connection with her parents' generation of the '60s through the music,'' Mason explains.

Setting her novel specifically in the summer of 1984, the year of Bruce Springsteen's ``Born in the USA'' tour, Mason explains, ``That song relates to the veterans' situation, it just belonged in the novel.'' Indeed, Springsteen's music forms an almost omnipresent sound track in the book.

``I grew up on popular music, and rock-and-roll expresses very deep feelings of those people who don't have a lot,'' she says. I think [Springsteen's] music relates very specifically to the working-class world, the world of my characters.''

While Bobbie Ann Mason concedes that ``the educated, literary reader is trained to pick up on references to popular culture as a negative judgment,'' she insists that lauding ``escapist pop culture'' is not her goal.

``Rock-and-roll can chase away the darkness . . . but it's not denying the reality.''

This cleareyed view of popular culture, particularly its impact on her native Kentucky, keeps Mason ambivalent. ``I don't want to be nostalgic and romantic about the [rural] past, because I think it's very hard [as a way of life]. On the other hand, I don't think they're going to find answers in a K mart.''

Although Mason now lives in rural Pennsylvania with her husband, she insists her native roots remain, personally and professionally. Her own teen-age years were the primary resource for creating her critically praised female protagonist. ``I drew mainly on my own remembrances.''

Ironically, very little of Mason's personal reaction to the war enters the novel. ``Looking back, it seems as if [the war] was very remote at the time, even though it wasn't.''

Instead, her research comprised reading veterans' accounts. ``I didn't have to read very much of them to get a sense of the horrors of what they went through,'' she says. It was her first visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., however, which is also the novel's climax, that most influenced the author.

``When I went to the memorial, I realized I had a right to write this story. Seeing the people who were looking for names on the wall, and their emotions that were so evident. They were Americans, just like my characters. I felt I could write about them.''

The success of this novel, Mason says, encourages her to explore new fictive territory. ``But that doesn't mean I'm going to get off those western Kentucky folks. Their lives are changing, and they're doing different things, so I think I'll see where they go.''

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