APRIL 29, 2016
THE PLEASURE of reading Lee Smith’s first memoir is something akin to tagging along on an archeological dig with the person who buried the bones. In Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, Smith returns to the stomping grounds of her childhood in the hardscrabble hills of Virginia, and exhumes for us much of the DNA of her fiction.
The author of 12 novels and four story collections, Lee has long been considered a “Southern writer,” though that designation is as inexact as calling the navicular tarsus a “footbone.” More explicitly, Lee is an Appalachian writer, a sub-genus of the Southern writer that includes T. R. Pearson, Charles Frazier, Thomas Wolfe, James Agee, Ron Rash, Wendell Berry, and the brilliant but short-lived Breece D’J Pancake. Daniel Woodrell should also be included in this group; though his mountains are the Ozarks rather than the Appalachians, his canvas and themes have more in common with them than with Southern writers like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, or Flannery O’Connor, whose particular stalking ground is the Deep South with its legacy of plantations and slavery. The work of these literary lions is set in the mythic realm of Dixie, an ethos rather than a place, (no more geographically real than “Hollywood,” which generally refers to a business rather than a city) and thematically focused on ideas of race and caste — of black and white — limned by the specter of the Civil War.
In contrast, Appalachian fiction tends to unfold in remote towns and hollers too poor to have been slave-holding. It concerns itself with the kinds of conflict generated by character and geography rather than history. Appalachia being the knobby spine of the South, its impenetrable mountains prevented the original Colonists from expanding westward for centuries. To settle there demanded people of fortitude. And their relative isolation created a unique microcosm of culture. As Lee writes in her preface:
Our formidable geography acted as a natural barrier for so long, keeping others out, holding us in, allowing for the development of our rich folk culture, our distinctive speech patterns, our strong sense of tradition, and our radical individualism. Appalachian people are more rooted than other Southerners.
It is these roots that Smith explores in Dimestore, beginning with the title essay in which she describes a childhood in Grundy, Virginia, which centered around her father’s Five and Ten Cent Variety Store:
As a little girl, my job was “taking care of the dolls.” Not only did I comb their hair and fluff up their frocks, but I also made up long, complicated life stories for them, things that happened to them before they came to the dimestore, things that would happen to them after they left my care. […]
I spent hours and hours upstairs in [my father’s] office, observing the whole floor of the dimestore though the one-way glass window and reveling in my own power — nobody can see me, but I can see everybody! I witnessed not only shoplifting, but fights and embraces as well. Thus I learned the position of the omniscient narrator, who sees and records everything, yet is never visible.
Often, after stopping by the dimestore she’d do her homework in the courthouse office of her grandfather, the county treasurer:
In the dimestore I learned who was pregnant, who was getting married, who had got saved, who had got churched for drinking, who was mean to her children or made the best red velvet cake. In the courthouse I’d hear a different kind of story — who was in jail, who had gone bankrupt or shot his brother or tried to short his employees, who was out of a job or had set his house on fire just to collect the insurance money. I also liked to go around the county politicking with Granddaddy on Sunday afternoons, sitting down to eat some Sunday dinner with everybody. I liked to stand out on the courthouse corner with him on Saturdays when he gave out dollar bills. Men would be smoking and shooting dice and “loafering around telling lies,” as Granddaddy said.
As a child, Smith’s earliest memories are of the natural storytellers who surrounded her everywhere, in town, in school, in her own family. Summer nights were spent on the front porch, the ladies shelling beans or sewing, the men drinking whiskey and telling tales. She often fell asleep “on somebody’s lap, looking at those lights and hearing those stories, told by somebody that loved me, so that my sense of a story is still very personal.” With her friend Martha Sue, young Lee started a neighborhood newspaper called The Small Review, written by hand and sold door-to-door for five cents. She relates:
I got in lots of trouble for my editorials, such as “George McGuire is Too Grumpy” or my opinion that “Mrs. Ruth Boyd is a mean music teacher. She hits your fingers with a pencil and her house smells like meat loaf all the time.”
The budding writer also had two imaginary friends who lived with her in a wading house by the river, a place that would eventually find its way into her first novel, The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed.
For readers familiar with Smith’s work, Dimestore abounds with such connections. Here, outside Grundy, is Hoot Owl Holler, the setting for her novel Oral History. Some may recognize the espionage club she started with Martha Sue and her cousin Randy from the short story, “Tongues of Fire.” A raft trip Smith made down the Mississippi River with 15 classmates from Hollins College her junior year served as the basis for her novel The Last Girls and appears here in essay form as “Big River,” a lovely companion piece to that novel.
Many of the essays in Dimestore shed light on the writing life. “Marble Cake and Moonshine” describes how she found her voice when she found her subject matter. In college, Smith had been writing sensationalistic stories about “orphans, evil twins, fashion models, and alternative universes.” Nonplussed when professors suggested she “write what she knows,” Smith confesses:
I thought this was terrible advice. I didn’t know what they meant. I didn’t know what I knew. All I knew was that I was not going to write anything about Grundy, Virginia, ever, and that was for sure. My last glimpse of home had been my mother and two of her friends sitting on the porch drinking iced tea and talking (endlessly) about whether one of them ought to have a hysterectomy or not.
But after hearing Eudora Welty speak on campus, and then stumbling upon James Still’s novel River of Earth, set in her own backyard of Appalachian Virginia, Smith came round: she began to write the stories she knew, including one “about three women sitting on a porch drinking iced tea and talking endlessly about whether one of them does or does not need a hysterectomy.”
“Recipe Box” tells of coming to understand her mother more deeply through a box of handwritten recipes inherited after her death. “Kindly Nervous,” (a regional euphemism for mental illness) looks at the crippling depression that afflicted both parents and forced Smith to live stretches of her childhood with relatives while one parent or the other was institutionalized for treatment. “Goodbye to the Sunset Man” describes a trip to disperse the ashes of her son in the waters off Key West after a life cut short by acute schizophrenia. Smith is seemingly and understandably unable to excavate this deeply complex relationship in a single brief essay, but in one of the more powerful pieces in the collection, “A Life in Books,” she backtracks her evolution as a writer and the effect this death had on her ability to write. After months of paralyzing grief, she began to see a psychiatrist who listened to her scream and cry for weeks and then wrote out a new prescription:
“Oh good,” I said, wanting more drugs, anything.
He ripped the prescription out and handed it to me.
“Write fiction every day,” it said in his crabbed little hand.
I just looked at him.
“I have been listening to you for some time,” he said, “and it has occurred to me that you are an extremely lucky person, since you are a writer, because it is possible for you to enter into a narrative not your own, for extended periods of time. To live in someone else’s story, as it were. I want you to do this every day for two hours. I believe that it will be good for you.”
Dimestore is also funny, full of the shrewd socio-cultural observations about place that have long characterized Smith’s work and afforded readers a picture of Appalachian small-town life. There’s the apocryphal anecdote about two ladies who got kicked out of the Junior League, one for having an orgasm and the other, a job. The notion that the quintessential requirement for being a Southern lady is a mastery of the fine art of denial. There are observations like, “As a whole, we Southerners are still religious, and we are still violent. We’ll bring you a casserole but we’ll kill you, too”; or, “We Southerners love a story, and we will tell you anything,” and its corollary, “In fact, a lie was often called a ‘story’ in southwest Virginia, and well do I remember being shaken until my teeth rattled with the stern admonition, ‘Don’t you tell me no story, now!’”
Apart from the title chapter, the strongest essay in the book is “Driving Miss Daisy Crazy; or, Losing the Mind of the South.” In it, Smith describes a writing student who bemoans that she will never be a Southern writer due to her upbringing in a military family whose constant relocations left her with no sense of place, past, or family roots. Smith writes:
[A] writer cannot pick her material any more than she can pick her parents; her material is given to her by circumstances of her birth, by how she first hears language. […] She doesn’t understand that she’s giving up her family and her home forever, that as soon as she writes about those things she will lose them, in a way, though she will mythologize them in her work, the way we all do, with all our little hometowns of the heart.
So she herself has done, and prolifically, in numerous novels and short stories. “It has always been easier for me to tell the truth in fiction,” she writes, a good enough explanation for why she has waited this long to exhume the bones of her beginnings in a memoir. But Dimestore, too, is a valentine to the voices and places that shaped Lee Smith, an homage to her little hometown of the heart.