Hey there, Story366! As promised, it’s early in the morning on Sunday and I’m blogging at you from a Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Kansas City. Yesterday, I noted that since we had a big day planned for Saturday, I needed to get my post done; with the fam sleeping away in the darkness, I read David Gates in the bathroom. Tonight, I expected to do the same, then remembered that the hotel lobby is well lit, has wi-fi, and the chairs are ridiculously more comfortable than the toilet seat. So here I sit, dozens of Royals fans coming and going, reading and writing about Lee Smith.
A long time ago, in undergrad, I was friends with this writer from North Carolina who absolutely loved Lee Smith. I didn’t know Lee Smith the writer, or her work, and constantly made jokes about Lee Arthur Smith, longtime Major League closer, who for quite some time, owned baseball’s all-time saves record. He played quite a few years for the Cubs, too, was their closer during my childhood. Baseball’s Lee Smith:
I soon realized it wasn’t exactly smart to make light of a writer like Lee Smith, an author with a dozen books to her credit, when I hadn’t published squat. Plus, it didn’t exactly behoove me to broadcast my dumbitude, not knowing about major American writer with a dozen books to her credit. Plus, my writer friend didn’t know who the hell I was talking about in the giant baseball fireman, so the joke wasn’t funny.
Since that time, I’ve made exactly zero effort in reading anything by Smith, to my shame, as she’s published three story collections in addition to a dozen novels and a few memoirs. While I don’t read a whole lot of novels, it’s rare that someone who is as accomplished at the short story as Smith is would have escaped me for so long. Actually, there’s no contemporary author I can think of who has written and published so much who I haven’t read before. Maybe William H. Gass? He’s probably the only other author, besides Smith, who has her creds whom I hadn’t read before Story366 this year.
But that’s the glory of Story366, one of the reasons I started it, to read all the books and authors and stories that I should have read but hadn’t. And now that I’ve read a few stories by Smith, I know that I’ve been missing out. I picked up Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, Smith’s fairly recent new and selected, and dove into a few of the new stories, avoiding the “selected” ones, as some of the selected date back to early seventies and I haven’t been reading anything that old. Plenty of good new stories, though, including “Fried Chicken,” which I’m covering tonight.
“Fried Chicken” is about Mrs. Polly Pegram, the aging mother of a murderer, which Smith tells us right away, in the first sentence. Mrs. Pegram lives in the same Southern town that she’s always lived in. Small town, though, translates into everyone knowing who she is, what her son has done, making her life in the town extraordinarily difficult. She has no one, her husband dead, her older children long gone, and her murderer son convicted.
What Mrs. Pegram does have is routine. Despite everything that’s happened, she lives her life as normal, paying no heed to the whispers that follow her around town as she walks to and fro—her son, Leonard, the murderer, used to drive her everywhere, so she never learned. She still goes to the same grocery store, still attends church, still lives in the same house. On top of that, she still makes fried chicken every Sunday, just like she did for Leonard before he went to jail. The plot of the frontstory is Mrs. Pegram shopping for supplies and then making her signature fried chicken.
How Smith structures the story is a balance between this fried chicken mission and Mrs. Pegram’s backstory. We learn about Mr. Pegram, her other children, and what she’s done for a living—she was a full-time housekeeper for a wealthy family who fired her as soon as her son was convicted of murder. We discover that Mrs. Pegram has had a pretty rough, pretty sad life, and even more sad is the fact that Leonard had and has been the absolute joy of her life. With him in prison for murder, there’s not a whole lot left of her.
The back and forth structure that Smith employs is so effective because she paces everything so well, revealing the right details at the right time, building Mrs. Pegram’s character, her family’s character, her sad existence as she trudges onwward. We find out every pertinent detail about her life, while at the same, we find out nothing about Leonard’s crime. This is the right choice, I think, as that’s not what the story is about. It’s about that fried chicken that she has to make, along with what’s gotten her to this point, her whole life. It’s a fascinating character study, to see what a tragedy like this—your beloved little boy growing up and doing something so horrible—does to a happy, normal woman, how’s she’s left alone, in his wake.
Now that I’ve read Lee Smith’s stories, I now can say that I’ve read Lee Smith’s stories. Plus, I can say that I’ve enjoyed her stories. I can recommend her work now, too, and that’s what I’ll do with Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, a fine intro into a fine writer’s work.