Starting Over, the sixth and latest collection of stories in the long career of Chapel Hill author Elizabeth Spencer, is a master class in narrative economy.
In her eighth decade of publishing, Spencer is adept at laying out the stakes in the first sentence or two. "Mason Everett, a man who lived most happily in his own mind, hadn't any idea why his daughter Tabitha had come to visit him," one story, "Sightings," begins, with the sharpest of edges. "It's true they never saw much of each other. Maybe it was a shame. He was neutral on the subject."
This narrative concision means that contextual elements, such as what town or year we're in, are often elided. Asheville is the secondary—or even tertiary—location of one story, while another, set in an unnamed college town, lets slip a cheer for the Heels. Otherwise, Spencer's towns are featureless; when they must have names, they are transparently fake ones such as "Eltonville" and, rather drolly, "Smallville."
While the contexts of the stories make clear that they are set in the South—mostly North Carolina but also Mississippi—the towns themselves are sketched out vaguely. In fact, they remind me of towns from Hollywood movies in the 1940s and 1950s, which were shot on backlots that afforded the characters a web of community ties—the town druggist, the banker, the newspaper editor. Think of great Preston Sturges films like The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, or the Bedford Falls of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life: perfectly American and perfectly anonymous.
We're a long way from the vividly, even comically rendered Tuscan cobblestones and tailored suits of "The Light in the Piazza," Spencer's most famous work. To be clear, this isn't a criticism. The lack of specificity in thse stories creates their out-of-time appeal. A cell phone tinkles occasionally, but mostly, her characters send handwritten letters by post, "look at" TV and read TIME magazine. But these aren't sepia-tinted stories: Beneath the facade of rather ordinary characters—the men are often traveling insurance salesmen, while the women patch together fitful part-time jobs—there is a deep well of disappointment or loss, often involving an estranged child, spouse or lover.
In fact, the stories in Starting Over are cut together quite cinematically. Movies have taught us to accept that a character can be in one place now, and in the next scene, a hundred miles away. We skip over the long, boring drive in between. Likewise, Spencer bypasses the tedious transitional bits and gets right to the important stuff. In the first story, "Return Trip," the middle-aged Patricia is summering in the North Carolina mountains with her husband when she learns that her cousin, with whom she shares a mysterious bond, has flown into Asheville. Just like that, she's in a new scene, with actions like script directions:
Airport. The heat in Asheville had about wilted her. She entered air-conditioning with a sigh and headed to the ladies' room to repair her makeup and make sure she looked her pretty best.
But before she could get there, a voice said "Hey wait up, Tricia," and there he was when she turned, Edward himself, standing still and grinning at her.
And, a few sentences later:
She managed to find an ancient restaurant, still there from former days, dim and uncrowded, a rathskeller. She sat across from him, her questions still unasked.
Where's the restaurant? In the airport or in town? Does it matter? No. This is quick-moving storytelling, and the point is the "unasked questions." As it happens, this story, while not the collection's best, is a tasty appetizer: It seems that there could be something very naughty happening between the two cousins, and they're not the only ones who wonder about what really happened on that debauched evening long ago, remembered with Gothic flashes of lightning and a power outage.
Or, as Spencer appropriately writes as she builds to her climax, "She had often replayed it. Scene by scene, like a rented movie, its sequence never varied." Spencer may be economical with her details, but she knows when a single modifier will multiply their impact. Cheap, sensational, a guilty pleasure, something you want to relive again: a "rented" movie.
I think the strongest stories are the four in the middle (excluding an affecting Christmas sketch): "Sightings," "Rising Tide," "On the Hill" and "Blackie." The significantly titled "Rising Tide" is the collection's most pointedly contemporary story, set in a Chapel Hill-like college town and concerning a divorced woman's foray into the working world of the 21st century. Margery takes an adjunct job teaching business composition, where she meets her primary foil, a South Asian man named Sabra, who harbors odd notions of chivalry and business ethics. Margery's daughter, who also attends the college, begins dating a Mexican immigrant. Margery is cool with it—she thinks—but others are not, including her dotty grandmother, whose mouth spills words that let us know we haven't completely left Ye Olde South. The story, like several others here, takes a violent turn, but unlike others, there is something resembling a healthy resolution.
"Blackie" is the story of Emily, a middle-aged women whose second husband has three difficult sons. While reasonably happy, she's aware of being hired, in a sense, to provide maternal comfort to these men. The death of her not-unfondly remembered first husband brings her back in touch with Tim, her grown son, who is a struggling musician. Tim moves into the shed behind the house with disastrous results. Emily's position at the end of the story is subtly horrifying—a woman trapped in a domestic situation with few resources, emotional and otherwise, for escaping. It feels like a 1950s proto-feminist horror story. I want to see the film version Ida Lupino would have directed and starred in.
"On the Hill," my favorite in this collection, is also the most unsettling. In this tale, set in another Chapel Hill-like town, a woman finds herself drawn to an attractive, socially advantaged family in a nearby neighborhood. But something seems not right, from the unannounced visits the family's young son pays her to the sinister church the family may or may not attend. Filled with inchoate guilt, locked doors, suggestions of buried secrets and apparitions in the woods, "On the Hill" manages to be both a knowing sketch of secular class prejudice and a compelling psychological horror story that's reminiscent of the quietly terrifying realism of the great Irish writer William Trevor.
Spencer has the perhaps enviable, perhaps burdensome position of a successful writer who, after many productive decades and nine novels, is still best-known for one extremely famous short story. The charmed life of "The Light in the Piazza," one of a dozen or so stories she's published in The New Yorker, includes a subsequent adaptation into a film with Olivia de Havilland and, more recently, a Tony-winning musical. When I checked my local library, I found that none of its eight copies was available. Clearly, it's the season of Spencer, a literary light in the Carolina Piedmont. For those longtime fans, and for newcomers to her work, Starting Over is a fine place to begin.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fine points and sharp edges."