Going Away Shoes
The protagonists of Jill McCorkle’s exciting collection of stories, Going Away Shoes, are middle-aged heterosexuals deep in the doldrums of life’s disappointments. Whether because of a stalled career, a divorce, a death, or simply the exhaustion born of juggling family, work and social obligations, these are women who’ve been battered by everyday tragedies and everyday pressures.
The title story introduces Debby Tyler. The oldest of three daughters, she has been left to care for her infirm mother. Since she has never been married, her two siblings assume that she has no life. Taut and spare, the story zeroes in on the role of memory in assuaging both guilt and desire; in addition, fantasy enters the mix as Debby imagines packing her bags and exiting the domestic hell she is mired in.
Marilyn, the protagonist of “Intervention,” is a retired woman who has become increasingly terrified of her husband’s escalated alcoholism. Her mistake, however, is mentioning this problem to her children, both of whom set out to plan a family intervention that will send their husband and dad into rehab. What ensues on the day of the expected confrontation is a fantastically moving reflection on long-term love that is both heartbreaking and filled with warmth and wisdom. The ways couples insulate themselves, and the ways the agendas of parents and children sometimes collide, makes this a particular stand-out in McCorkle’s eleven-story collection.
Other relationships also come in for scrutiny and sibling love meets sibling rivalry in “Another Dimension,” a tale that centers on the secrets and lies that both bind and divide us. Once kids no longer need to unite against parental forces, what purpose does maintaining long-maintained deception serve? McCorkle’s cudgel is sharp as she pierces the gut of duplicity and illuminates the limits of amends and apologies.
The anthology is heavy stuff told with wit, finesse, and abundant humor. In “Midnight Clear,” for example, the main character, a recently-divorced mother of two, is getting ready for a Christmas Eve bash when she suddenly notices a foul odor permeating her home. In short order the culprit is identified: Her septic tank is malfunctioning. This slice of what-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong is made ever more horrific when we learn that the planned party will include the narrator’s ex and his new girlfriend. So what to do? A chance encounter with a guardian angel-cum-repairman—an elderly gent with stories to share—might have seemed contrived in less skilled hands. Here, however, it works and the magic of chance encounters is rendered with both grace and elegance.
McCorkle is a mature writer, someone who refuses to be lulled by blinders and palaver, a writer who notices every nuance and detail. Her woman are strong and capable, if sad. Yet at the same time, Going Away Shoes is a hopeful book in which the lure of untapped possibilities remains within reach. Like the golden ring on a carousel, her message suggests that if we keep our eye on the prize it just might find its way into our waiting hands.