by katy carl
wiseblood books, 318 pages, $15
In her collection of engaging and acutely observed short stories, Fragile Objects, Katy Carl shows a debt to Flannery O'Connor, especially with startling (often violent) endings or characters such as the unkempt “rosary lady” who attacks a school fundraising festival like Jesus among the moneychangers. Carl, who is Catholic and a mother, exposes her characters’ myopic self-regard as mercilessly as O’Connor does, and the movements of grace in these stories might be even more indistinguishable from the pathos of tragedy.
But Carl is witty about the presence of influence. Her story “Omnes Habitantes in Hoc Habitaculo,” which centers on a young woman beset from childhood by the insistent and often quarreling voices of her ancestors, might be the parable of a writer reduced to voicelessness by those who come before. She is liberated at last by an exorcism that silences them: “Only then did the place’s rightful inhabitants begin to speak”—and Carl certainly lets her characters speak for themselves.
O’Connor once wrote that William Faulkner was an overwhelming presence for other Southern authors—Harold Bloom would have called it “the anxiety of influence”—but Catholics writing short fiction are more likely to be anxious about the influence of O'Connor herself. How does Katy Carl handle O’Connor’s powerful haunting? In “Allie,” the title character—a young woman without the requisite looks or “dismissive wit” of the higher social circles around her in Charleston—comments to her boyfriend about the lack of self-awareness wealthy people show, including her boss. “You know Janet drives this glossy new chartreuse Prius? And on the back, she stuck this hideous bumper sticker? Blue with gold text. ‘Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.’” Janet indulges in green self-congratulation (which Allie criticizes), but neither Janet nor Allie recognizes the quotation from O’Connor’s Wise Blood, where the inimitably morose Hazel Motes pronounces this very sentence about his “high, rat-colored car”—one of the proverbs, so to speak, of his “Church without Christ.” In Carl’s story, the question of justification (even for those with a good car) turns its Pauline ironies in many directions.
Nobody will ever call Katy Carl a sentimentalist. Early in the story dryly called “Company Men,” it seems possible that the warnings the bishop receives about a young priest in a local parish will prove to be empty. Surely, this fit young bicyclist who handles First Communion classes will turn out to be unjustly maligned by ignorant laymen; perhaps he is deeply engaged in prayer during the hours each day when his pastor does not see him. But the focus of this story about institutional complacency and self-protection finally comes to rest with startling force on the “little ones” these men so easily forget.
Carl has little ones of her own. She knows what it feels like for them to be endangered. Embedded in the thick of contemporary life, she ranges across many characters and situations. She understands deeply how sexuality is related to the rest of life in a story about a sexually naive escapee from a cult upbringing, or a career woman dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, or a recent convert whose struggles with lust turn almost as apocalyptic as the struggles of O’Connor’s young Tarwater with his prophetic calling.
Every mother knows the difficulty of caring for children and trying to get anything else done. Few are quite as overburdened as Lucia, the wife and mother helping run a farm in Carl’s “Sequatchie Valley,” but most will recognize her inner summary of her day: “breakfast clothes yard cleanup garden lessons lunch cleanup stories rest snacks cleanup cooking cleanup dinner cleanup bath cleanup songs stories bed.” Carl’s wealth of observation—the enumeration of untouchable “frangible curiosities” at a grandmother’s house, the sheer, hellish volume of stuff at a Catholic school fundraising festival—teases the reader with comic possibilities, but the stories do not end with the “upward draft” of comedy. From the forking paths of possible outcomes, these stories choose the harshest consequences of decisions based on popular ideologies and wishful thinking.
So strictly does Carl deny herself happy endings that the stories sometimes feel unduly bent toward tragedy. Mild and consoling conclusions hover as possibilities but markedly fail to materialize—with one, well-earned exception at the end of the book in a story called “Awards Day.” Even there, nothing is easy, nothing is downplayed, nothing is sentimentalized. Characters appear in the stories in the thick of midlife uncertainties about who they are and why they are doing what they do—for example, a mother organizing her life around taking daughters to dance lessons (“packing, unpacking, scrubbing, taping, icing, wrapping. . . . Screaming, sometimes. Driving, always”), and all this for the three minutes “under incandescent heat, under pressure” when “the girls fly, glow.” The overwhelming question, which owes to the first sentence of Anna Karenina (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”), is whether their family is happy—and there is deep honesty in the confession that she cannot answer it.
In this population of desire and confusion, one of the most devastating takedowns of the contemporary desire for authenticity comes in “Sequatchie Valley” (the longest story in the collection), in which a young couple tries to get off the grid and live as organic farmers. Carl writes that the young husband “had already chosen the westernmost edge of the nearby Sequatchie Valley for a place to take his stand,” an ironic allusion to I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, the seminal 1930 manifesto by Twelve Southerners. Little in contemporary satire can compare to the disillusionments that Carl has these young agrarians undergo, not least the bureaucratic (and highly symbolic) difficulty of being certified as organic farmers when the land is tainted by a crop-dusting neighbor.
But this is no comic descent played for comfortable laughs. Carl’s story ends in a place of such terrible exposure that one cannot help but recognize the risks she takes as a writer. She never goes the way of harmless revelation. These stories lodge in the mind uncomfortably and call for another reading—and still another—as the best stories do.
Glenn Arbery is professor of humanities at Wyoming Catholic College.