Bishop’s Georgia stories evoke the tales of one fellow Georgia author in particular who also set most of her stories in her home state: Flannery O’Connor. Indeed, the collection foregrounds its ties to O’Connor from its first page to its back-cover ad copy. O’Connor specialized in writing darkly humorous short stories set in Georgia that revolved around grotesque characters including religious fanatics, con artists, lunatics, and serial killers. Many of Bishop’s stories collected here feature the same kind of freakish characters and grotesque situations in which O’Connor regularly traded. Even the single story in the collection that takes place outside of Georgia, “Andalusian Triptych, 1962,” has a Flannery O’Connor connection, evoking the bucolic name of Andalusia that O’Connor gave to the dairy farm where she lived with her mother and wrote most of her stories.
“The Road Leads Back,” the collection’s opening story, begins with a quote from O’Connor: “I am really only interested in a fiction of miracles.” O’Connor wrote those words in a letter to her friend and long-time correspondent Betty Hester in October 1960, and “The Road Leads Back” is about an imaginary road trip these two close friends take in pursuit of a miracle. Like O’Connor, the story’s protagonist Flora Marie (a play on O’Connor’s first and middle names, Mary Flannery) is a successful Georgia author and devout Catholic who has lupus and must use crutches to walk. The story starts a few months after Flora Marie’s trip with her aunt to bathe in the sacred waters of Lourdes. Like her real-world counterpart who made a similar journey, a miraculous cure eludes Flora Marie in France.
Flora Marie’s friend Hetty Bestwick reasons that if a trip to France cannot deliver a miracle, then a trip to Alabama will. The two set out for Alabama’s Benedictine monastery, which features a sprawling diorama of tiny landmarks and holy sites called the “Scenic Shrine of the South.” Surviving O’Connoresque encounters with both a gun-wielding maniac and a foul-mouthed child, Flora Marie and Hetty finally witness an honest-to-God supernatural miracle in Alabama. The laws of physics break. Something that was once inanimate springs ridiculously to life. And it doesn’t cure Flora Marie of her lupus one bit.
Although Bishop is best known for writing science fiction and fantasy, only two of the 15 tales in Other Arms Reach Out to Me can be classified as such: “The Road Leads Back,” the light fantasy that opens the collection, and “Rattlesnakes and Men,” the chilling science fiction alternate history that concludes it. The rest are, in Bishop’s words, “mostly realistic.”
All are full of miracles.
The miracles in Bishop’s Georgia stories are the kind of miracles that interested O’Connor. These are not divine interventions that break the physical laws of nature, such as the “miracle” that comically concludes “The Road Leads Back.” Rather, O’Connor was interested in “the action of grace,” miraculous acts of mercy that dissolve differences between her characters. Grace is a rare thing, though, in O’Connor’s violent and grotesque stories. Most of her characters are destroyed by their differences.
Grace is much more common in Bishop’s stories. Flora Marie is not miraculously healed of her lupus in “The Road Leads Back,” yet she takes the road back to Georgia restored precisely because she has experienced an action of grace: the mercy the Benedictine brothers express for the gunman who shoots holes through their model of Lourdes and who tries to kill both Hetty and herself. When Flora Marie hears the brothers’ cries for the fleeing criminal to return and “make your profession!” she is struck by the revelation that the man who just tried to kill her “longed for commerce with humanity, solace in the company of men.” Her consciousness expands past anger and outrage to see her would-be killer as the same as herself.
The remainder of the collection’s stories continue to explore the lives of the residents of O’Connor Country. In “Unfit for Eden,” a fundamentalist stepfather who lives with his new family deep in Georgia’s “Okefinokee [sic]” swamp terrorizes his stepson for being attracted to Walt Whitman. An inmate of the Quiet Harbor Psychiatric Center falls in love with a woman who compulsively plucks every single hair from her body in “Crazy about Each Other.” In “Doggedly Wooing Madonna,” a high school student working at a fast-food restaurant is visited by the performer Madonna herself, who considers but then rejects his many offers of marriage. In “Other Arms Reach Out to Me,” a woman is tricked into playing the violin naked for a seemingly dying resident of the Bright Bower Hospice. In “Baby Love,” a single father grieving the violent death of his wife raises his baby in a smoke-filled dive bar. And in “Change of Life,” a biologist is heartlessly dumped by the love of his life who “used [him] as a baby maker.” In “Rattlesnakes and Men,” the residents of Wriggly, Georgia, are forced by law to keep “self-defense” rattlesnakes in their homes in spite of the fact that the snakes routinely kill children. The characters in Bishop’s Georgia stories experience disappointment, madness, losses, and meanness. But these things do not destroy them.
The comparison of Bishop’s Georgia stories to those of O’Connor illustrates the former’s literary debt to the latter, surely. More importantly, though, the comparison foregrounds Bishop’s own individual strengths as an author whose concerns, ultimately, are not O’Connor’s. O’Connor wrote about people who are spiritually (and often soon-to-be physically) dead. Bishop, however, does not share O’Connor’s fascination with Georgia’s walking dead. His stories are about people who keep gracefully living even after all of the freakish and grotesque things that happen to them.
The stories in Other Arms Reach Out to Me are about survivors: survivors of racial hatred, survivors of sexual harassment, survivors of religious persecution, survivors of dangerous technologies, survivors of lies, survivors of disappointment, survivors of personal loss. In “No Picnic,” for example, a black nurse named Shadrach is inexplicably singled out for scorn by one of Loretta Hickock Elder Care Center’s white residents, Mister Worthy. Shadrach is so sick of the personal discrimination heaped on him by Mister Worthy that he stops attending to him. Shadrach then learns that he resembles a young man whom Mister Worthy saw lynched when he was eight years old. As Shadrach overhears Mister Worthy recount the lynching to his visiting granddaughter, he cries, “But you still watched him hang!” Seeing a postcard of the lynched young man, Shadrach recognizes him as “my own blood kin hung decades ago for a horror he’d had no hand in.” In O’Connor’s hands, this grotesque moment might have exploded in violence and damnation. Bishop, however, resolves it much more gracefully. Shadrach now knows why Mister Worthy has singled him out for persecution. He starts attending to Mister Worthy’s needs again, and after his death Mister Worthy’s family gives Shadrach Mister Worthy’s beloved Georgia Tech hat, which he keeps in a drawer filled with old nails and tools. Shadrach cannot escape his family history, and he doesn’t have to like Mister Worthy, but he can survive both with graceful humanity.
In the collection’s closing story, Bishop returns to the science fiction genre to imagine the action of grace within Georgia’s aggressive gun culture. “Rattlesnakes and Men” is set in an alternate near-future timeline in which gunpowder has not been invented and World Wars I and II never happened. That, however, is not the story’s miracle. American armed forces have recently returned home from fighting alongside the native Koorie army in an Australian War (fought with crossbows). Guns may not exist in Bishop’s alternate America, but biotechnology has advanced to the point where poisonous snakes can be genetically engineered to live coiled around human limbs and serve as self-defense “carry snakes.” The town of Wriggly in Nokuse County, Georgia, home of the company that creates these snakes, has passed a law requiring every resident to carry a self-defense snake in spite of the fact that more people — including children — are killed by the snakes than are protected by them. Wriggly serves as an estranging, grotesque vision of American gun culture. Dangerous snake ownership is the town’s way of life, and the few residents who resist it are threatened, attacked, and driven out of town.
Yet even in Wriggly there is room for miracles. Corporations and politicians alike may conspire to cover up the dangers of carry-snake ownership, and the good-old-boy Nokuse Rattlesnake Alliance may fight any and all reasonable precautions against the dangers posed by carry snakes. Yet one of their own, the son of the Alliance’s chairman, breaks from the town’s toxic traditions to help a whistleblowing doctor escape the town so she can spread the word about the dangers of snake ownership that the leaders of Wriggly are covering up. “Sunuvagun” is the only thing a sympathetic Australian War veteran can say when learning of this graceful treachery. The phrase “son of a gun” has no meaning to the story’s narrator, a woman who has grown up in a world without guns. When asked what the odd term means, he tells her, “It’s old Koorie army slang. […] it meant something like — you know, like ‘Will miracles never cease?’”
The miracles never cease in Michael Bishop’s Georgia stories. Bishop has taken O’Connor’s miracles and coupled them with a conception of grace and an emphasis on survival that are all his own. The result is an entertaining, heartfelt, and often surprising collection of stories that celebrate their regional roots loudly and proudly, but are never held down by them.