17 July 2009

Paducah, Kentucky, and Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country

When Joel Conarroe reviewed Bobbie Ann Mason's first novel In Country (1985) for The New York Times, he described it as 'Shopping Mall Realism', which somehow doesn't quite hit the right button (1). But he was more exact when he said the book is 'light-years away from the young professionals sipping margaritas on Columbus Avenue', because Mason writes about a very different America from the glamorous San Francisco city centre.

Less than two years ago, I'd never heard of Bobbie Ann Mason when I drove through southern Illinois's Shaunee National Forest and over the Ohio River into Paducah, western Kentucky. We visited the quilt museum (2), but in a town with a population of only 26,000 there appeared to be not a tremendous amount more to see. And yet in In Country, in the ironically named small town of Hopewell - perhaps a pseudonym for Mayfield, where Mason was born - a visit to Paducah, its mall and its restaurants, is the highpoint of the week.

Sam Hughes is a late teenager and Conarroe finds her similar to characters in the fiction of Carson McCullers and Harper Lee, although the language is very different:

'The restroom is pink and filthy, with sticky floors. In her stall, Sam reads several phone numbers written in lipstick. A message says, "The mass of the ass plus the angle of the dangle equals the scream of the cream." She wishes she had known that one when she took algebra. She would have written it on an assignment.'

In a world where adolescent sexual witticisms are foregrounded to schooling, Sam's mental outlook seems both limited and limiting: there is an abundance of references to tradenames, TV programmes and commercials, and such singers as Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Boy George. As the book progresses, though, Sam's horizons widen, and this is symbolized by her buying a car, which is important to her self-discovery.

In Country is in part a quest novel, and Sam mentally sets out to find her father, who died in Vietnam, and who never saw his daughter. She does this by asking questions of people who knew him, and by reading his semi-literate letters and diary. This is also a protest novel, quietly raging against the horrors of the Vietnam war, and against the callous treatment ex-veterans receive. Sam lives with her Uncle Emmett, who appears to be suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. Soon tiring of her childish boyfriend, she tries to form a relationship with the older veteran Tom, but he is impotent: he is yet another of the walking wounded who carry the ghosts of Vietnam around with them.

The main part of the novel is a long flashback which is sandwiched between a road trip made by Emmett, Sam, and Sam's grandmother - who perhaps bears some resemblance to the grandmother in Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find' - in Sam's car, to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

This is a very powerful and moving coming-of-age story detailing the effects of war, a story of the difficulty people have relating to each other. Oh and, er, let's not forget the frequent references to ham and mother-fuckers (3).

(1) The title refers to a GI expression for Vietnam.

(2) The Museum of the American Quilter's Society.

(3) 'Mother-fuckers' is another GI expression, this time used for the loathed lima beans the soldiers were given to eat.

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