The Lightness of Water and Other Stories
By Rhonda Browning White
Press 53, October 2019
Hardcover: 146 pages, $24.99
In this riveting debut collection, winner of the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, debut writer Rhonda Browning White offers compelling portraits of Appalachia that extend all the way to Florida and reach back across time eighty or so years. While sometimes there is melodrama, as there is in real life, the stories crackle with authenticity, perceptiveness, intelligence and, occasionally, some welcome wit.
In general, the stories are dead serious, to the point that they can be grim or even oppressive, but here too there is realism, and every narrative is credible, well thought out, and confident. If the point is to capture the bad stuff—cancer, anger, addiction, infidelity, death—that’s fair enough, it’s even fair game. And while sometimes—let’s say rarely—the dialogue can tend toward soap opera, that too has the ring of truth. This is excellent work.
The opening two stories might have done well to be separated more within the collection, as both veer away from promised violence, so that the first predicts the outcome of the second. But, regardless, the book must open with “Bondservant” because it revisits this couple in the collection’s end piece. “Bondservant” is a daring story about an old miner who has a plan for revenge and a way to get his beloved son and daughter-in-law out of Stump Branch. While the ending declines to a sad realism, the ride there is mostly deft and entertaining. Romie and Jasper are a compelling couple, and it is hard not to root for Paw. All he wants to do is make a real statement by blowing himself up, and instead he’s going to die in a pain that is withering and corrosive. And the old man’s been thoughtful enough to try to leave the young couple all of his OxyContin. “Ought to be enough to buy a new start in Carolina,” he tells his daughter-in-law. But in the end she has no choice but to refuse him the satisfaction of his wishful thinking.
In “Things Long Dead,” two Vietnam veterans argue over who saved who in Vietnam. After Romie’s more drawn out voice in “Bondservant,” Fuzz’s here is crisp and smart, a welcome contrast, but the back to back placement with “Bondservant” does create an unfortunate predictability and echo. We know that ultimately Fuzz will do Crankshaft no harm, even before he realizes this. As they traverse time to re-examine the pivotal moment of who rescued who from the exploding mine, Crankshaft remembers, “Your eyes were open some. Closed some.” “Hard to keep ‘em open,” Fuzz responds. “Had a hole in my head. No foot.” These guys are real.
“All Grown Up” is the third first-person story in a row, but the voice comes from a ten-year-old girl who must watch her drunk uncle ruin her birthday. This story realizes its small violences, but can read as piling on, like after they ruined the cake and the broken dishes, there is nothing left to destroy. Except, of course, the girl’s love for her uncle, which indeed also gets its fair outcome.
Around this time, the reader might find himself wishing for a third person story, a more distant perspective on the grim realism, as these first three are ripe with clear-eyed views on real suffering, and “Worth Fighting For” delivers. It’s an outstanding story about a long-married embattled couple and their son contemplating his own dysfunctional marriage, and the precious blow of mortality that strikes them all. This stunning, powerful, bold narrative offers expert shifts in time and terrific poignancy, as we learn just how much everyone does indeed love one another. Even the doctor can’t help but admire the attempted dual suicide of the loving old couple. “Sharing the poison,” she observes. “Like Romeo and Juliet.”
“Good Friends” is a nice literary feat, a deftly ironic monologue told by a woman who has waited too long for a man and whose apparent one friend is actually no friend at all. While it might be a kind of gimmick, there are also some great lines. “I won’t fight for no man’s affection,” the voice tells us, “even if I need it.”
“The Lightness of Water” takes us back in time nearly eighty years, and is an intriguing story that doesn’t end, but hints at bolder shifts to come, as we learn that Lurleen has watched her own grief-stricken sister Violet commit suicide, and now is contemplating it herself. In the end she surrenders to life but has determined to tell her husband the truths that should inalterably shake him. What will happen next is anybody’s guess, but in this story of every birth gone wrong, one senses it doesn’t come out quite all right. This is nicely unpredictable work, made more admirable by the excellent evocation of a distant time, and an indisputable depth of emotion. In the aftermath of her own near suicide, Lurleen admits, “I curl into a ball, make myself small, shivering as much from the horror of what I’ve almost done as from the icy wetness. The sob inside me breaks loose, and I empty out all that I have carried.” For, after all, she too is now pregnant.
“Kicking Time” takes us somewhere else entirely. This grim story about a former poetry professor and his former student finds them now married and both junkies, and excavates the bleak past that trails them, including how the professor drunkenly drove his father to his death and the former student’s own dad got so injured in the mines that moonshine was the only thing left. The finality of all this is written on every page: “One drunken mistake in this small town full of smaller-minded people, and everything dissolved.” In the end the professor wants to kick the habit and the former student doesn’t, and for the moment they separate. The prose is elegant, the content heavy but authentic.
“Heritage” is another surprising story, as the range of content really begins to strike the reader. In here a social-climbing mother, after an unexpected moment of adultery, suddenly finds her true self. This is all oddly, satisfyingly triumphant, and Claire, as her own daughter observes, is indeed a real character. And the ending pops too, with its own wide open quality, as Claire can see all the different places her new honesty might take her.
At last we come to “Big Empty,” and revisit Romie and Jasper, his father now buried, and the story now his to voice. The first half is almost exultantly buoyant, sunny even, as they do indeed travel to North Carolina and find a better life there, away from the mines and the toxic decapitation of the land, until…One day, Jasper is assigned to the Killdozer on his construction crew, and finds himself killing tree after tree, and then, unexpectedly a family of rabbits. This so upsets him he determines to quit the job, and if you find this development inauthentic, you have to read this story: it is absolutely true to his character. However, as they often do in this collection, things get worse and Romie, for the second time, loses a baby. It’s a fast narrative that ends grimly, yet somehow doesn’t feel like piling on, told against the backdrop of questioning traditional gender roles and women who learn better and more than men. “I close my eyes,” Jasper says at the end, “but I can’t picture anything at all, can’t see what lies ahead, only blackness like I found in the belly of the earth. There’s a void there, a nothingness, a big empty so powerful I still taste its icy bitterness in my mouth.”
Ironically, and so despite the grim content of many of the stories in here, one doesn’t leave the collection with the same icy bitterness, but with the satisfaction of reading work that is well told and that always hews to the essential realities—mortality, suffering, financial and social struggling—of what it’s like to be human. This is a very fine book.