May 4, 2016: “Alice in Dairyland” by Jesse Lee Kercheval

Wednesday it is, Story366, and not only a Wednesday, but the last day of classes for me this school year. So, I should be jumping up and down with joy, sitting in a deck chair, sipping margaritas, right? Well, no, because next week is finals week and every student I have, in three classes, just handed me a big stack of stuff to grade. I’m not sure what asshole assigned all that work, but I should punch him in the face.

Actually, I get a little sad the last day of classes, walking out the last time, leaving that particular grouping of students behind. I always ask if there’s anything else I can tell them about writing or publishing. I ask them which stories we read that they liked, as well as which they didn’t. I tell them a good writer’s plan for the summer: to write and read a lot. I tell them to write me if they need anything, advice, a letter, or something else, after they’ve graduated. I wish them well on their finals. It’s like I’ve been adopted and am leaving the orphanage or something, all the sad still-orphans watching me go as they stay behind to fill out my evaluations. It’s just a bit sad.

Today I read from Jesse Lee Kercheval’s collection The Alice Stories, winner of a Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction from the nice people at the University of Nebraska Press. I know Jesse Lee a bit, as we’ve been FB friends for a while, and if I’m not mistaken, I let her whip the crap out of me in Words With Friends a whole bunch of times, back in the day when people played Words With Friends; that had to be, what, four years ago, the height of that games popularity? I remember thinking, when I’d have twenty games going at once, that it was the greatest thing, that I’d play Words With Friends forever. And then I just stopped playing. I tried to get Jesse Lee into FarmVille, then Clash of Clans, then Trivia Crack, and she’d have none of it. So now we just like things on each other’s walls. And I read her book for Story366.

The Alice Stories are about a woman named Alice, a woman who faces this and that. I read the first couple of stories and am going to write about the first, “Alice in Dairyland,” but to note, the book seems to move forward in time, jumping forward to catch up with Alice at key incidents in her life. Both stories have been life-changing for Alice, as well as life-threatening. As I’m guessing the rest of the stories are about Alice, too, so I kinda wonder how many life-changing and life-threatening one woman can face. Since I like these first two stories so much, and like Jesse Lee Kercheval, I’ll find out.

Anyway, in “Alice in Dairyland,” Alice is in Wisconsin, finishing up a PhD in English in Madison (where Kercheval teaches now), living with her photography professor boyfriend, even though she has a paid-for grad student apartment on campus. The story features dueling plots, one of which is Alice’s mother, in a Wisconsin drying-out facility on the other side of campus. Alice stuck her in there after she passed out at the airport, on a visit to Alice, ten mini-bottles from bourbon rolling out of her purse in the terminal. Her mom is not doing well, mostly in the sense she wants a drink (a pretty big sense for a rehab clinic). A first-paragraph phone call from mom, stuck in this place, Christmas right around the corner and Wisconsin frozen solid, puts Alice in a mood, sets the tone for the story.

Another call comes almost immediately after, from Anders, the photographer boyfriend, and he’s at one of his student’s apartments and he’s in trouble, needs Alice to come get him. Yeah—you’re thinking what I thought: He’s gotten caught with this student, maybe he’s gotten her pregnant, and that’s what this story is about, Alice having to deal with her cheating boyfriend and alcoholic mother over Christmas break. Alice, however, doesn’t suspect that—to be fair, why would Anders call her to come to his student-lover’s apartment?—and she heads right over. All of this—both phone calls—happen within the first couple of pages, meaning Kercheval has established a pretty chaotic, high-stakes, nerve-racking tone from the get-go. It’s a good thing all of this happened at noon, waking Alice up, as I know I couldn’t handle shit like this at seven a.m. when I was in grad school (but could now: I have kids).

Alice heads over to this girl’s apartment and doesn’t find anyone there, not Anders, not Angela, Ander’s student. About to leave, a pickup truck barrels into the complex lot and a woman gets out, a large woman, Jo Beth, Angela’s lover. Jo Beth pokes her finger into Alice’s chest, accusing her of being “the one,” meaning the one who Angela is cheating on her with. Only—and here’s the life-threatening part—it’s not Jo Beth’s finger: It’s Jo Beth’s gun, and she’s pointing it into Alice’s breastbone, has been cuckolded, and doesn’t have anything to lose. So, stakes. Danger. Drama. And a gun! Alice leads a much more interesting life, I’d like to say, than most English grad students, but who am I kidding? I was an English grad student. I have English grad students. This sounds pretty typical, actually, especially right before Christmas break.

Should I go on? Well, I’ll say this, not wanting to give away any more: Think Chekov’s gun, that if a gun is introduced, it’d better go off or the writer has failed. Also, remember that this is the first story in a book of stories about Alice. Putting that information together, I’m not sure you could guess the ending, not right away, though it might depend on how many guesses I gave you.

Alice seems like a pretty normal woman, a woman who faces realistic though serious problems, and we get to watch her deal with them, see how they form her life. Kercheval is able to inject a lot into her dramatic situations by keeping the pace frenetic, always shoving some crisis in Alice’s way, making her juggle a lot of shit at once. I think it’s important that a lot of the communication that happens in the stories I’ve read happens via notes, letters, and especially phone calls, that there’s this real disconnect between Alice and the people in her life, never dealing with each other in person, just through messages. It gives the person-to-person confrontations—like the one with Jo Beth—a lot more meaning, not necessarily the positive kind. I noticed that in the second story, “Damage,” as well, set in San Francisco on the day of the 1989 earthquake. Alice is kept on the move, touches base with whom she needs to, but is mostly on her own. I’m guessing that’s not a mistake. I like it. Good basis for a character in a series of stories.

The Alice Stories has been a pleasure to delve into and I fully intend to see where Jesse Lee Kercheval—who’s a pretty darned good poet, too—takes Alice next. Should be a good ride, one worth checking out.

Jesse Lee Kercheval

One thought on “May 4, 2016: “Alice in Dairyland” by Jesse Lee Kercheval

  1. Pingback: May 9: “Wonder Woman” by Jodi Paloni – Story366

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