A Twilight Reel: Stories
by Michael Amos Cody
Pisgah Press, May 25, 2021
312 pages, $17.95
Michael Cody’s collection of twelve linked stories, A Twilight Reel, follows the pattern of Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar (1579), with each story set in the same small, rural community and following the progress of the calendar year. In this case, the year is 1999, on the eve of a new millennium, and the place is the fictional Appalachian college town of Runion, North Carolina. Cody’s calendar of tales features incidents Spenser never could have dreamed: a hypothermic granny stripping down to nothing but socks and shooting at her would-be rescuer with a twelve-gauge shotgun; a good-Samaritan minister picking up a hitchhiker only to find himself at knifepoint being forced to smoke bowl after bowl of marijuana. In another story, a young woman’s four-year-old son punches his mother’s date (and landlord) in the groin, thus upending her plans for Valentine’s Day and precipitating threats of eviction. If these stories sound full of local color, rest assured that Cody renders all of his characters with impressive psychological complexity.
In the hands of a lesser writer, for example, the tale of Troy Pate’s lifelong plan to wed Marilyn Monroe might lead only to grotesque humor. That Troy is mourning the death of his “midget” wife of many decades (207) might only increase the odds that these lives will be othered as weird Appalachians. Quite to the contrary, Cody inclines us to see Troy’s autoeroticism as all too human. With incredible sensitivity, Cody explores how Troy Pate and his deceased wife had for many years negotiated Troy’s obsession as a means of accessing deeper intimacy within their own marriage. This tender treatment of long marriage makes “A Poster of Marilyn Monroe” all the more poignant in its depiction of a widower’s helplessness.
One of the collection’s major preoccupations is the ways that a traditional, often insular, community adjusts itself to changing times, becoming gradually more inclusive. An impetus for this change in many of the stories is the presence of Runion State University, which brings new global citizens to the previously inaccessible hinterlands. In “Conversion,” after an evangelical minister absconds with the church bank account and a parishioner’s wife, the congregants are left to wrestle with their deeply held prejudices as the Western North Carolina Muslim Community purchases the building and replaces the cross and steeple with a mini-dome bearing the symbol of their faith.
Similarly, several stories examine the homophobia common in Runion. Perhaps the most devastating of these, “The Invisible World around Them,” chronicles the homecoming of Mark Fredericks, who on the day of his arrival tells his parents the unexpected news both that he is gay and also that he is dying of AIDS. Mark’s father, Gene, navigates his complicated feelings about these revelations while attempting to protect his son and himself from the unpredictable responses of townspeople. As in so much of the collection, the action of event is supported by psychological work. Indeed, so many of the stories end with a kind of Joycean epiphany, a private moment the character shares with no one other than the reader. By the end of the book, we feel deeply and broadly intimate with this community.
One of Cody’s more Joycean adventures and the collection’s final piece, “Witness Tree,” follows the dreaming of Carol Boyd-Boyd, so named because she has married Carroll Boyd, a man who, despite their shared names, is neither kith nor kin. A custodian at Runion State University, Carol dozes in the campus library. Near her sleeping chair, the college has displayed a slice of the historic white oak from campus, felled a decade earlier by Hurricane Hugo. One hundred ninety inches in diameter and over three hundred years old, the slice of tree bears pins and labels at rings that coincide with events of historic significance. Carol has listened to a lecture in the library addressing some of the darker, undiscussed moments in the local history, including multiple lynchings, men suspended from the branches of this historic oak. Carol learns of one distant relative executed for “sodomy” (268), inviting the reader, if not Carol, to make a connection to the homophobic violence that breaks out in modern-day Runion (and related in “A Fiddle and a Twilight Reel”). As if to repress this dark history, Carol’s dream joins the exploration of the oft romanticized figure of Daniel Boone, only to have Boone’s party note that this region is known for barbaric settlers, “notorious eye gougers” (280). Still sleeping, Carol wants to counter this critical view of her region by letting Boone and his party know of “the town, the churches, and the university to come” (280). Later, on her way home to an abusive husband, Carol confronts the persistence of this history of physical and emotional violence. On this Christmas Eve, 1999, Carol anticipates the possible apocalypse of Y2K and the ascendence of “eye gougers” not unlike her husband. With its publication following close upon the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, “Witness Tree” feels darkly prophetic.
If A Twilight Reel ends with such forebodings, the reader should remember the model of Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar, which culminates in darkest December, a month when the entire earth seems to languish in death’s shadow. However, the calendar as literary device allows us to anticipate the return of brighter, warmer days. And one need only return to other stories in Cody’s fine collection to remember that, even if life as we know it is imperfect, it is also irrepressible. These stories contain such an abundance of original people on both sides of Runion’s town-gown divide that any reader will have numerous opportunities to feel the thrill of this life along the pulses.