Review: “Amazing Graces”

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Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women
ed. Richard Peabody
Paycock Press, January 2012, $18.95

In Washington Close-Ups, one of the earliest attempts to understand the character and composition of the nation’s capital, Edward Lowry observed: “It passes belief how little is known about Washington by the country at large, and yet no city is more written about.” That was 1921; now, more than ninety years later, Lowry’s words are just as apt. Despite the media explosion that followed the dot-com burst of the nineties and the “re-urbanization” of the last two decades that has sent a stream of highly literate young men and women into the District, no one outside of the city’s boundaries fully understands what life there is like.

In an effort to shine some light into this void, Richard Peabody, a DC-based writer and founder of Paycock Press and Gargoyle magazine, has spent almost a decade publishing anthologies of short stories by Washington women writers. The first, Grace and Gravity: Fiction by Washington Area Women, was released in 2004 and elicited such a response that Peabody went on to compile four more volumes. The most recent, Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women, hit the shelves on January 8 after a launch party at the Washington literary institution Politics and Prose.

Something about this idea clearly resonates with readers. Peabody identifies the project’s allure in his introduction: “This series,” he writes, “is a ready-made course in the diversity of the local literary scene.”

Diversity-perhaps America’s most cherished ideal and least enacted reality-is certainly the hallmark of Amazing Graces, which generously offers something for everyone. The stories run the gamut, from a couple with a faltering marriage who attend a Capitol Hill costume party as the Kennedys to a man who wakes up blind and is convinced that God has stricken him with the affliction in retribution for his mother’s infidelity. The range is enormous, although certain themes persist throughout. Many of the stories deal with the difficulties of marriage and the unique burdens and blessings of motherhood.

Peabody has certainly uncovered some work of great beauty and meaning. Catherine Bell’s “Witness” is a tight, complex accounting of a young girl confronting the ubiquity of lying-and realizing how easily she herself falls into dishonesty. Much of the power of this story lies in how closely each episode fits in with the others: without ever lapsing into formulaic writing, Bell winds up each strand of the tale into a hard knot of an ending that will pack a particular punch for Washingtonians well-versed in the ambiguities of compromise.

Other notable stories include Caitlin Cushman’s “After Words,” a sensitive tale about a woman coming to terms with the death of her mute husband; Susan Lennon’s “Chicken Foot Leak,” an account of a gay sailor’s last night in Virginia before shipping out that feels suffused with both the muted grayness of the Atlantic coast and the uneasy peace of waiting; and Bettinya Lanyi’s “Burrow,” which offers some of the strongest characterization in the anthology in its portrait of a suburban wife and mother who becomes obsessed with the need to control her environment. Beth Frerking’s “Watching” offers a very creepy interlude. With its fine pacing and skilful picture of the District’s unstable border communities, this story has haunted my mind for days.

Despite the strength of certain individual stories, however, a major absence marks Amazing Graces: the absence of Washington itself. For an anthology that self-identifies as a collection by Washington-area writers, it is strange how little the District appears in its pages. Many of the stories have no connection to Washington at all; those that do are often set in the suburbs. The few that take place within the city’s boundaries almost never identify a neighborhood, particular streets, or any of the dozens of physical locations that shape and color an urban resident’s life. A few mention Capitol Hill, and one refers to Adams Morgan, but more often than not, houses are simply convenient to unnamed metros, and cafes and apartments might as well be in Omaha or Chicago as in Washington.

This refusal to ground a story in particularities dogs much of the writing in this collection. It does not seem unrelated that many of the authors seem more eager to evoke a feeling than to tell a story, which produces a number of vignettes for which plot is clearly secondary. After investing time in grasping characters and an unfamiliar situation, it is frustrating to discover that an author has chosen not to resolve the central conflict in favor of describing some “meaningful” metaphor. Although we can be glad that writers are now freed of the tyranny of tying off every storyline into a neat resolution, the decision to completely abandon a plot mid-arc hints at either laziness or confusion about what the story is really saying. A little less heavy-handed symbolism and a little more story would be a welcome change.

What is so disappointing about this lack of interest in Washington-based fiction is, as Peabody points out, “the range, the mix, the varied voices, and the possibilities available in the nation’s capital.” Washington is one of the most unique cities in the world. Riddled with contradictions, it is both the global capital and Jay Franklin’s provincial “Main-Street-on-Potomac,” where a sophisticated population of federal workers and foreign nationals live cheek-by-jowl with the deeply rooted black population that is probably the most ignored community in the nation. It is a place where ideals inevitably collide with reality and emerge the worse for wear. More than other cities, Washington has a dual personality: the city seen through the halls of Congress and the great houses of Georgetown, so amply chronicled by writers like Allen Drury and Gore Vidal, and the “other Washington, known for fa├žade and neglect,” in the words of Edward P. Jones, probably the greatest Washington writer of recent years, whose intense attention to life in the Shaw district of DC amply exemplifies William Carlos Williams’s dictum of “no ideas but in things.” There is a huge tapestry of life here that is writers’ for the taking-and it seems odd that such talented writers, who have the privilege of glimpsing a city that so few can even begin to understand, do not grab at the chance.

A few groundbreaking writers in Amazing Graces are pushing boundaries in this area. In “Martyna,” jonetta rose barras reveals the rougher neighborhoods of Washington that are caught in a cycle of poverty and despair, although her narrative can be confusing. Patricia Bartlett’s “One of a Kind” deftly sketches the effects of a bureaucratic lifestyle in its portrayal of Leonard Franklin, a statistician with the Office of Miscellaneous Correlations. Lorine Kritzer Pergament’s “Smell the Roses on Your Own Time” captures the conservative, insiderish quality of daily life in Washington, even for those unconnected to the government.

A final question that lingered in my mind long after I had finished reading the anthology was why women writers are so reluctant to use the first person. I don’t know whether creative writing teachers today are placing a stigma on this way of writing, but it seems odd to me that so many writers outline the deepest fears, hopes, and preoccupations of women while preserving the safe distance of the third person. At times, this decision detracts from the strength of the character’s voice, filtered as it is through the all-too-omniscient narrator’s eyes. Given the number of strong and purposeful women who live in and around the District today, first-person stories in which the narrator takes ownership of her voice would be a welcome addition to the literary scene.

But in the end, these are all possible paths for writers to explore. Peabody has already announced the beginning of work for a sixth volume in the series, which will likely uncover new ground. Readers both within and without Washington would do well to pay attention to these varied offerings of the city’s ever-expanding literary scene.