"Nothing With Strings" by Bailey White: Book Review

"Nothing With Strings"
by Bailey White
Scribner, 193 pp., $24
Reviewed by David Marshall James

Bailey White's short fiction-- its structure, style, and nuances-- is as Southern as a bank of azaleas under a stand of loblolly pines.

There's something decidedly Southern about someone, especially a writer, who is still residing in the home in which she was raised. In White's for-instance, that home is located in Thomasville, Georgia, where she taught first grade for many years.

Ten years have transpired since White, also a commentator for NPR (where these pieces were first presented), has produced the story collections "Mama Makes Up Her Mind" and "Sleeping at the Starlite Motel," so this new volume comes as a long-awaited event. Well, make that "a treasure."

Think of a tale you have heard a relative repeat until it is worn as smooth as a creek pebble, and you have something on the order of "MIss Wigglesworth's Bull," the story of a spinster schoolteacher of yore that feels as if it is being related by a grandparent on some long summer's evening.

Not that White is an old-fashioned storyteller, except in the best connotations of that phrase. Sometimes, her short fiction hovers in a modernistic landscape of hazy reality, leaving the reader to wonder: "Is the protagonist dreaming-- or imagining-- the ending?"

More often than not, however, White proves straightforward in her prose, and this volume's thirteen stories are thematically threaded by the characters' desires to meet some sort of need.

That need generally pertains to a yearning for love, understanding, or compassion. It is frequently met in unexpected twists of fate, as in "The Long Black Veil," in which a widow is searching for a man who needs her as much as she does him.

In "What Would They Say in Birmingham?" and "The Telephone Man," the central characters realize too late that what they have needed is right under their noses.

One of the best stories, "Bus Ride," features an assortment of characters who simply need to talk, and to exist for a time in a milieu with strangers, as they are neither understood nor appreciated by their supposed "loved ones."

Also superlative are "Return to Sender," which concludes in a Brigadoonish mist that spills the past into the present, as well as the title story, in which grief is released through a figurative baptism.

White caps off the volume with the grandly sentimental "Almost Gone," in which a watercolor artist unearths an Alzheimer's patient's fondest memory.

The author's eye for detail enhances all the stories, whether she's discussing Southern botany, or dressmaking, or how to restore an ancient lawnmower. The characters' environments are either reflective of, or influential on, their feelings. The characters attempt to alter their surroundings, to escape them, or to find some solace in them.

In White's view, the spirit never rests until it has perfected those surroundings, or found someone with whom to share them-- or, better yet, both.

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