a Review of Trash
stories by Dorothy Allison
Ithaca: Firebrand Books
Review Copyright © 1988 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
TRASH, noun 1. parts that have been broken off, stripped off.... 2. broken, discarded, or worthless things; rubbish; refuse. 3. worthless ideas, talk, or writing; nonsense. 4. a worthless or disreputable person or people. verb transitive: to regard or treat as trash; discard or worthless. (Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language)
Early on in the story "River of Names," the narrator's lover says, "You've got such a fascination with violence. You've got so many terrible stories."
"So I made a list," the narrator writes.
I told her: that one went insane got her little brother with a tire iron; the three of them slit their arms, not the wrists but the bigger veins up near the elbow; she, now she strangled the boy she was sleeping with and got sent away; that one drank lye and died laughing soundlessly. In one year I lost eight cousins.... Four disappeared and were never found. One fell in the river and was drowned. One was run down hitchhiking north. One was shot running through the woods, while Grace, the last one ... fell off the overpass a mile down from the Sears, Roebuck warehouse and lay there for hunger and heat and dying.
Later, sleeping, but not sleeping, I found that my hands were up under [my lover's] chin. I rolled away, but I didn't cry. I almost never let myself cry.
Her lover was right: Dorothy Allison does have a fascination with violence, and she does have many terrible stories. The 14 that make up her first collection of prose concern lives and ways of life that have been broken off from hers, and discarded by other people who found them worthless. In her rural South Carolina childhood her blood family struggled with gothic poverty and an epidemic of incestuous rapes; their horrors and beauties are offered up in about half of these tales. In the northern cities of Allison's migration members of her chosen family squabbled about politically incorrect ways of making love; their pettiness and poignancy have been preserved in the others.
But what is trash in someone else's eyes often turns vibrant and vital in Allison's. She is so much in love with survival and language she rehabilitates the lives and traditions that touch hers, making something strong and new from the "poor white trash I am for sure."
In the domestic violence of "Mama," for instance, she finds a mother-love that guides her throughout this book.
When my stepfather beat me I did not think, did not imagine stories of either escape or revenge. When my stepfather beat me I pulled so deeply into myself I lived only in my eyes, my eyes that watched the shower sweat on the bathroom walls, the pipes under the sink, my blood on the porcelain toilet seat, and the buckle of his belt as it moved through the air. My ears were disconnected so I could understand nothing neither his shouts, my own hoarse shameful strangled pleas, nor my mother's screams from the other side of the door he locked. I would not come back to myself until the beating was ended and the door was opened and I saw my mother's face, her hands shaking as she reached for me. Even then, I would not be able to understand what she was yelling at him, or he was yelling at both of us. Mama would take me into the bedroom and wash my face with a cold rag, wipe my legs and, using the same lotion I had rubbed into her feet, try to soothe my pain. Only when she had stopped crying would my hearing come back, and I would lie still and listen to her voice saying my name soft and tender, like her hand on my back. There were no stories in my head then, no hatred, only an enormous gratitude to be lying still with her hand on me and, for once, the door locked against him.
In the stories of adulthood the same narrator finds a parallel sort of salvation in herself. For example, angered, frustrated, hurt, and hung over in "The Muscles of the Mind," she climbs a summer hill at dawn and tries to do her martial arts exercise.
I push and sweat but my mind won't let go. My feet keep slipping in the grass. The sun slanting up through the dogwood trees stabs my eyes. I lose my place in the kata and can't remember the next sequence of moves....
I stretch up again, start the kata over, watching my form in the mirrored windows, the pattern of my body twisting, rising, kicking, and coming back around to start again.... Sweat runs into my eyes, and my muscles go loose and fluid. The magic starts in my belly, and the kata becomes smooth, the feel of it more like sex than anything else. My fear goes out of me, my grief. What did I imagine was wrong with me anyway? The first night I'd slept with Cass, I'd rolled over and laughed out loud when we'd finished making love.
"Goddamn!" I'd yelled. "I love my life." Cass had laughed back into my face, pulling me down to start all over again.
"Goddamn," I whisper now, and start the kata over a fourth time. Liquid and gold, my knees come up and my fists punch out. The kata, the dance, takes me up, makes me over. I let go of Liz and Judy and all of them. I come back into stance, with my hair loose and damp on my neck, the smell of my own body like wine in the morning sun.
"Goddamn!" I hiss the word between my teeth and look up to see myself standing with my head back and face glowing in the reflected windows. The whisper carries distinctly in the morning quiet. I can almost see the ripple of it in the grass.
In her "Preface: Deciding to Live," Allison acknowledges the autobiographical element in these stories, calling them "the condensed and reinvented experience of a cross-eyed working-class lesbian, addicted to violence, language, and hope." If the description is accurate as far as it goes, it also sells these stories short. They are as self-aware and self-reflective as the author's message suggests, but in addition they are told with a consistent, firm, and honorable restraint. As a consequence they never bask in the trendy sham of self-conscious irony.
Instead, they sing. Like the very best American prose from William Faulkner's to Toni Morrison's, Allison's stories beg to be read aloud. The musical lilt in her writing haunts the ear long after the eye is shut, evoking the spectre of thousands of Dorothy Allison readers all learning to speak in the same sweet soft and deadly voice. It is not just with the occasional phrase that Allison rivets the reader to the page: "When we heard him yell, my sister's face would break like a pool of water struck with a handful of stones" ("Mama"); "Granny's Christian women came out like new spit on a dusty morning" ("Gospel Song"); "Your mama couldn't keep a hen to save her life till she emptied a shell and filled it with chicken shit and baby piss. Took that dog right out of himself when he ate it" ("Don't Tell Me You Don't Know"). It is more the gathering of intangible forces harnessed to her prose that moves from word to word, from line to line, from sentence to sentence, building tension in the reader to be rent by a literary orgasmic power.
"Oh, fuck me. Goddamn it! Fuck me!" I begged. Toni slid me to the edge of the table until my head hung off and my hair swept the floor. When her fingers opened my cunt and her teeth found my breast I started to scream and the monkeys in the wall cages screamed with me. I jerked and pushed against her, wanting to fight, wanting to give in, wanting the world to stop and wait while I did it all. When I finally started to come, I swung my head until the cages blurred and the monkeys became red and brown shimmering cartoons. Toni climbed over me and put her naked belly against mine, and I began to cry the deepest aching sobs. It felt as if my skin itself were trying to absorb her, soak up the peace and silence inside her. I wanted to stuff myself with her until I was all cotton-battened, dark and still.
"Love," Toni whispered.
"Sex," I told myself, inside my vast quiet open body. "Sex, sex, just sex."
My favorite story in Trash is "Gospel Song," in which the child narrator, who wants desperately to become a gospel singer but has absolutely no kind of singing voice on which to build such a career, befriends the most unpopular girl in school. As a fat, sweaty, pink-eyed, white cotton-candy-haired albino, Shannon Pearl is so feared and ostracized by her classmates and the local adults that she has learned to hate as the price of a hard-won survival. Like the narrator, there is something she desperately wants -- acceptance and knows she can never have. Shannon's hatred is a capacity our narrator recognizes, then, and has expressed throughout the book's earlier stories of her youth.
But in "Gospel Song" she seems to learn to transform her grave capacity, as if the experience with which the story culminates is the sort of fulcrum upon which Allison's own development as a writer might have turned.
While on an outing with Shannon's parents to hear drunk, somewhat well-known white gospel singers, the narrator praises some gospel music she hears coming from the woods. Shannon objects that it is black peoples' gospel. The two girls have a bitter fight and do not speak for the kind of long time pre-adolescents sometimes wallow in. Finally, Shannon calls to invite the narrator to a family barbecue. The day of the event, without having accepted the invitation, the narrator arrives unannounced and unseen from the back way, and watches Shannon fiddling with a fork at the barbecue grill. Then,
"You fat old thing." One of Shannon's cousins ran past her and play-whispered loud in her ear. "You must'a eat nothing but pork since you was born. Turned you into the hog you are." He laughed and ran on. Shannon pulled off her glasses and started cleaning them on her skirt.
"Jesus shit," I whispered to myself.
I had always suspected that I was the only friend Shannon Pearl had in the world. That was part of what made me feel so mean and evil around her, knowing that I didn't really care enough about her to be her friend. But hearing her cousin talk to her that way brought back to me the first time I'd met her, the way I'd loved her stubborn pride, the righteous rage she turned on her tormentors. She didn't look righteous at that moment. She looked tired and hurt and ashamed. Her face made me feel sick and angry, and guilty about her all over again.
I kicked at the short wooden fence for a moment and then swung one leg up to climb over. All right, she was a little monster, but she was my friend and the kind of monster I could understand. Twenty feet away from me, Shannon sniffed and reached for the can of lighter fluid by the grill. She hadn't even seen me watching her.
Afterward, people kept asking me what happened....
Shannon squirts the barbecue coals with lighter fluid, and creates a vacuum that sucks flame right up the liquid stream into the can; the can explodes, and
Shannon didn't even scream. She had her mouth wide open, and it seemed as if she just breathed the flames in. Her glasses went opaque, her eyes disappeared, and all around her skull her fine hair stood up in a crown of burning glory. Her dress whooshed and disappeared in orange-yellow smoky flames. I saw the fork fall, the wooden handle burning. I saw Mrs. Pearl come to her feet and start to run toward her daughter. I saw all the men dropping their iced tea glasses. I saw Shannon stagger and stumble from side to side, and then fall in a heap. Her dress was gone. I saw the smoke turn black and oily. I saw Shannon Pearl disappear from this world.
The narrator attends the funeral and there Mrs. Pearl begins to moan.
She started to moan suddenly like a bird caught in a blackberry bush, moaning softly, tonelessly, while the preacher carefully pushed her down into the front pew. The choir director's wife ran over and put her arm around Mrs. Pearl while the preacher desperately signaled the choir to start a hymn. Their voices rose smoothly while Mrs. Pearl's moan went on and on, rising into the close sweaty air, a song with no meter, no rhythm but gospel, the purest gospel, a song of absolute hopeless grief.
I turned and pushed my face into my mama's dress. Nothing could cover the persistent smell of barbecue.
It is about as hard for me to stop praising Trash as it was to stop reading it, even when other duties called. The whole book is lavish as a southern feast, and like the author in "A Lesbian Appetite," I just keep on eating.
I've been dreaming lately that I throw a dinner party, inviting all the women in my life. They come in with their own dishes. Marty brings barbecue carried all the way from Marietta. Jay drags in a whole side of beef and gets a bunch of swaggering whiskey-sipping butch types to help her dig a hole in the backyard. They show off for each other, breaking up stones to line the firepit. Lee watches them from the porch, giggling at me and punching down a great mound of dough for the oatmeal wheat bread she'd promised to bake. Women whose names I can't remember bring in bowls of pasta salad, smoked salmon, and jello with tangerine slices. Everybody is feeding each other, exclaiming over recipes and gravies, introducing themselves and telling stories about great meals they've eaten. My mama is in the kitchen salting a vat of greens. Two of my aunts are arguing over whether to make little baking powder biscuits or big buttermilk hogsheads. Another steps around them to slide an iron skillet full of cornbread in the oven. Pinto beans and onions are bubbling on the stove. Children run through sucking fatback rinds. My uncles are on the porch telling stories and knocking glass bottles together when they laugh.
I walk back and forth from the porch to the kitchen, being hugged and kissed and stroked by everyone I pass. For the first time in my life I am not hungry, but everybody insists I have a little taste. I burp like a baby on her mama' shoulder. My stomach is full, relaxed, happy, and the taste of pan gravy is in my mouth. I can't stop grinning. The dream goes on and on, and through it all I hug myself and smile.
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