Review of Mending: New and Selected Stories by Sallie Bingham
Sarabande (October 2011)
Reviewed by Anne Sanow
Since her debut novel in 1961, Sallie Bingham has published six more, along with collections of stories, poetry, plays, and a memoir about growing up in (and freeing herself from) the burden of her powerful and volatile Louisville media family. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Prize Stories. For all this prolixity, she may be one of the most devastatingly good writers in America who isn’t a household name. Fortunately, Sarabande Books has just released Mending: New and Selected Stories, which spans Bingham’s long career and showcases her considerable talent.
The title story opens the book with a strong first-person presence: a young female narrator finds her way to independence after her mother, who “had a penchant for changing men,” foists her off on her aunt in Greenwich. In an attempt to find warmth and connection, she becomes obsessed with her psychiatrist in the city. With a wink at The Bell Jar, the story is a bit of a romp—yet it also depicts a kind of necessary unraveling of the self, and tilts the ordinary askew.
The tilted effect is something Bingham excels at. The narrator in “Mending” initially tells us that she is “ply[ing] my trade up and down the avenue,” but our expectations of what that might mean are quickly knocked sideways when we learn that she has been raised as a “good girl”—yet one who will hook up with the handyman, or liken a man’s genitals to a radish. These tilts demand that the reader pay attention.
Bingham also often chooses to write from the more challenging or unsympathetic point of view. In “Winter Term” (the controversial story written as an undergraduate that won Bingham a spot as a guest editor at Mademoiselle), two college students grapple with an unsatisfactory relationship and the restrictions of 1950s social mores; their conflict is conveyed from the perspective of Hal, the young man, and the reader is likely to feel implicated in the behavior that results. The husband in “Rachel’s Island” decides to seduce his wife’s sister, and ends up humiliating himself. In “Benjamin”—which brilliantly engages the themes of creativity and aging—the title character is an irascible artist who has achieved success late in life (he is 90) and blatantly pursues a young museum assistant. Bingham is also adept at depicting conflict by just letting her characters talk: in both “Selling the Farm” and “The Hunt,” siblings and in-laws reveal their secrets and suppressed opinions, opening wounds that may never heal and upending self-knowledge in middle age, just when we think we have a handle on it.
There are strong messages here: about gender, about class, about sex and the self and who we are or are trying to be, and what me might never become. Bingham knows how to put characters together and let their desires and differences not just rub up against each other, but scratch and draw blood if they need to. They are talky; they say the wrong things or too much; they’re allowed some epiphanies and moments of happiness, too, but it never feels completely easy. Good fiction is about engaging conflict, not avoiding it—about looking closely, often uncomfortably, into the marrow of self. Bingham clearly knows that if you center on character, the Big Ideas will emerge as a result.
This is a hallmark of Bingham’s stories. They are deceptively focused, yet do several things at once, with both subtlety and sharpness, and the layers deepen their complexity. They are both frank and undeniably classy (we go into bedrooms; young women pull up their stockings and don hats or gloves). The observations are keen and the language is wonderfully fresh and precise: a woman recalls her mother sitting “cow-patient” in the front of a car; another woman retrieves her hat from the floor “as though she were scooping fledglings out of their nest”; the dialogue, in every story, is pitch-perfect, with sass and verve. Reading this collection as a whole, it comes as a shock to realize that this is a writer who had that rare thing called wisdom even in her twenties—even better, to realize that she continues to push boundaries. If you don’t know Sallie Bingham’s work yet, get to know her now.