“Free Ploughshares” Review: Winter 1983

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Issue: Winter 1983

This is a review of a back issue of Ploughshares. The author won our “Free Ploughshares” contest that we hosted earlier this year and agreed to review his/her free issue. This post was written by Stephanie Rogers. Enjoy!

Time and Timelessness

In 1983, President Obama and I were twenty-two years old. Like the president, I have never considered myself a “Baby Boomer.” The title just never seemed to fit, I never seemed to get it—the selflessness of the ‘60s that gave way to the selfishness of the ‘80s that led to the self-righteousness of the ‘00s. I’ve always been just at little bit too young to be caught up in time the way it seems a Real Boomer should be. And I have never been more aware of that difference than I am now, as I review, at 50 years of age, a 1983 issue of Ploughshares, guest edited by Raymond Carver.

Raymond Carver is one of the reasons I write. When I edit, particularly short stories, it’s Carver’s cigarette smoke that drifts across my eyes. So, when the Ploughshares issue arrived, I simply held it for a long minute, staring at the names of publication and editor, remembering the first time Ploughshares rejected a short story of mine, remembering the first time I read Raymond Carver.

When I reverently opened the issue, I first reviewed the authors. Some names I, of course, recognized—Joyce Carol Oates, Max Apple, Tess Gallagher, Jay McInerney. My nose wrinkled. For decades, I have been jealous of Ms. Gallagher, Mr. Carver’s poet-wife, and for the same decades, I have been less than a fan of Mr. McInerney, Mr. Carver’s one-time student.  (I will deny jealousy there.) Consequently, I was anxious to read their entries right away, but as I flipped the pages, I remembered that Carver, as guest editor, must have chosen story order and decided instead to read the issue from start to finish. I’m glad I did.

The issue opens with Tim O’Brien’s “Quantum Jumps,” and within a few paragraphs I was experiencing the familiar but uncomfortable feeling of being out of my depth. Not so much because of talent, (though Mr. O’Brien is a far better story teller than I), but because of content.  There it was again—Boomer Land—the place I recognize but don’t quite belong. Like “Quantum Jumps,” many of the issue’s other pieces (including Ms. Gallagher’s “A Pair of Glasses,” Max Apple’s “The Eighth Day,” and Sandra Scofield’s “Trespass”), rose before me like Twilight Zone episodes. Well-written stories with universal themes made for familiar landscapes, but their inhabitants spoke an almost foreign language that I somehow felt I should know. I was twenty-two again, at a party where everyone else was almost forty.

Mid-issue are two first-time publications with which I hoped to fare better, Jamie Diamond’s “Not Modern” and Barbara P. Erdle’s “Loneliness Quiz.” Mr Carver’s eye was clearly evident in their choice for inclusion; both are “minimalistic,” offering a microscopic look at a moment in time through the eyes of an “ordinary” person.  But there was dullness to the stories and to their characters, an almost lifeless flatness that I did not expect in a Carver selection. I was back to being fifty, only now the party was for children.

By the end of the issue, I found two stories that, more than any of the others, say “Ray Carver chose me:” “The Farmer’s Wife,” by Lynda Lloyd and “Amanda,” by Jay McInerney.

Written a year before the publication of his wildly popular novel, Bright Lights, Big City, “Amanda” is prototypical McInerney, a second person eye-view of 1980’s excess, replete with name-dropping, cocaine snorting, and rabid self-involvement. I didn’t like the view then and I don’t like it now. However, now, it is, at least, possible for me to imagine why Raymond Carver did. Certainly he shared with his student, an ability to stare bleary-eyed at the world then paint it with vividness both frightening and pathetic, and certainly Mr. Carver would have been pleased with Mr. McInerney’s then unusual use of You. Yet there is something in the McInerney piece that rings hollow for me still, more hollow than surely he intended, something more vapid even than the runway model veneer over his Amanda’s papier-mâché soul. The story is very much, perhaps too much, of its time.

There are no veneers in “The Farmer’s Wife.” With very few words, Lynda Lloyd tells a fairy tale that is not, and she tells it with the voice of a female Raymond Carver. Because every word is the right word, Ms. Lloyd’s story of one short break in the hard, busy life of a small farm family becomes a moment of wonder. Because every word is the only word, this moment transcends both the time in which it happens and the time in which it was written. This is especially evident in the author’s description of the farmer’s wife:

We can see in this unthought, tiny frame of time that she should have been a princess, a historic beauty, a ruling passion. The shape of her head, its buoyant angle, the sun-brushed glow of her skin and hair make visible for an instant the phantom crown she should have had. Her pale gold hands on her son’s head shape the prince, the monarch, the demigod she should have embraced. She was born on a farm and has done the work of a farm woman since she was thirteen. Her palms and fingers are calloused. She is still young.

This is good writing. At twenty-two or fifty, this is good writing. This is timeless writing. This is writing that must have made Raymond Carver smile.

Stephanie Rogers won her first writing award at the age of eleven for an essay on Texas and, after graduating from the University of Texas, was published in various regional lit journals. Since then, her prose has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize (2008) and her poetry has won numerous awards, culminating in the 2010 Poetry Award in Grace Notes Books’ Discovering the Undiscovered Competition. This award resulted in the publication of Stephanie’s first poetry collection, Toms, in October 2011. A Grief Counselor, Stephanie is currently working on a collection of stories about her work in Hospice. She is also the prose editor for Notes Magazine. Other work may be found at www.kittysteph.com.