Shiloh by Bobbie Ann Mason, 1982

views updated

by Bobbie Ann Mason, 1982

The title story of Bobbie Ann Mason's first collection, "Shiloh" contains many of the author's themes and is a good example of the brand of fiction often associated with her name—"Kmart chic." Her characters are frequently from the middle or lower middle class, unsophisticated but often decidedly capable. Kmart fiction treats contemporary life, and often the narrative, as is the case with "Shiloh," is rendered in the present tense. Mason's usual terrain is western Kentucky, where she grew up. Although the flavor of an earlier time may mark her characters' speech, their perspective is as much shaped by popular American culture as by the region. Television, for good or ill, has helped reshape the regional mind-set, and marking such changes is central to much of Mason's work, including "Shiloh." The speed and scenic structure of her work has earned it the name "telefiction." Accessible to the general reader, Mason's fiction nevertheless has had decided appeal for the sophisticated reader. "Shiloh," for example, was first published in The New Yorker, where much of her succeeding fiction also found a home. Although her fictional base is southern, her work speaks far beyond the borders of the South. Indeed, her work invites comparison with that of Raymond Carver and Anne Beattie.

The title "Shiloh" strikes a minimalist note—flat and noncommittal. It is lean and spare but eventually leads to a complex of meanings. Shiloh was the site of one of the most important battles of the Civil War, one marked by heavy carnage. The name does not begin to evoke for most readers what it did a century earlier for the readers of Melville's poem by the same title. For the contemporary southerners of Mason's story, Shiloh is only a destination, named for an event remote in history, and they need goading before they explore the battlefield just south of the Kentucky border. The characters are much more concerned with the present than the past, and it is their own history that they must confront. At the story's end the lost cause at issue is a marriage. Shiloh becomes a metaphor for the battle between the sexes, and again this time the battle is "civil."

The opening sentence of the story—"Leroy Moffitt's wife, Norma Jean, is working on her pectorals"—prepares readers for the ending. In a story about change, Norma Jean is preparing for more change. The image is remote from traditional notions of the southern wife or lady, and the new image is one feminists are likely to applaud.

Leroy is not sure that he likes the new regime of his household, for his wife standing with her legs apart and lifting a 20-pound barbell reminds him of Wonder Woman. It is a threat to his castle. For every man is traditionally king in his castle, as Mason means her reader to remember by naming her male lead Leroy (the king). She undercuts him immediately, however, by pairing the name Leroy with the surname Moffitt, which hardly sounds threatening. Norma Jean will inform Leroy later that her name comes from Norman. "They were invaders," she warns. In a story that teems with items from pop culture, the name Norma Jean is suggestive also of Marilyn Monroe's given name. But the Norma Jean of Mason's story will never fall heir to the weakness inherent in the image of the doomed movie star.

"Shiloh" is a story about role reversals. After a major road accident Leroy, a truck driver, will probably never be able to resume his occupation. Only 34, he seems to have settled into the role of house husband. Whereas he used to be away from home for long periods, he now takes mainly short rides around town in the car, spending most of his time at home working on various craft kits, including needlepoint. His wife earns the income by continuing to work at the Rexall Drug Store—Rexall extending the play on the male-dominated world—while he draws "temporary disability." The adjustment this change makes on all parties, including Norma Jean's mother, is profound.

But it is Leroy's angle of vision that dominates the story. His accident turns out to be a fortunate one in that it causes him to notice much about his home and his community that he had not noticed before. Socrates taught that the unexamined life is not worth living, and in "Shiloh" a middle-aged man suddenly begins to examine his life. In that sense Mason's story is hopeful and optimistic from the very beginning: "Leroy has grown to appreciate how things are put together. He has begun to realize that in all the years he was on the road he never took time to examine anything. He was always flying past scenery." He is now beginning to notice, to see, and to change. Sensing that he has taken his marriage too much for granted, Leroy wants to claim the heritage of his name. He wants to sell his rig and to build a log cabin from a kit for his wife, the kind of castle he can be king in.

Because he would like for his wife to be happy in whatever castle they have, he has bought her an electric organ for Christmas. But if Leroy is changing before the reader's eyes, Norma Jean has been changing at an even faster pace. And although she soon masters the organ, it cannot satisfy her. Accustomed to working outside the home, she has gained confidence in her abilities, and Leroy's "permanent homecoming" makes her question her future. She has been noticing even more than Leroy has, and, more than he does, she wants change. Her activities baffle him. Not only does she take up weight lifting, but she also changes their diet to a heart-conscious one. And she begins to take courses at Paducah Community College, discovering something of her abilities and of the possibilities once kept from women of her class. She increasingly becomes a woman ready to march, to "goose step."

Norma Jean's rebellion comes after her mother discovers her smoking, a vice she has kept hidden for many years. Although she will soon give up the habit that she knows runs counter to the new goals she has set for herself, she is now ready to declare her independence both from her mother and from Leroy. When Leroy suggests a Sunday trip to Shiloh, a trip her mother has long wanted her daughter to take to visit the battlefield where she herself had honeymooned, Norma Jean agrees, but she denies any romantic dimension. "Who's going on a honeymoon, for Christ's sake?" she thunders. Leroy senses the threat that lies in almost every word Norma Jean utters.

The trip enables the couple at last to talk about their past and themselves, but only after Norma Jean tells Leroy that she wants to leave him. Having married just out of high school, already pregnant, Norma Jean senses the entrapment that molded her life. Any chance of overcoming such a beginning was made difficult, perhaps impossible, when their young baby died in the backseat of their car while they were at a drive-in theater. Randy, though no longer mentioned, haunts the marriage, as Rudy's death haunts another middle-aged couple in James Joyce's Ulysses. The Moffitt marriage, like the Bloom marriage, has become sexually dysfunctional. With Molly's famous "yes," Joyce's novel ends with Molly and Bloom moving closer than they have been in many years. Mason's ending allows for this possibility, but it is decidedly open-ended and ambiguous. "Norma Jean is far away, walking toward the bluff by the river, and [Leroy] tries to hobble toward her," having seen more deeply into his marriage than he ever had before and having seen how "dumb" his idea of the log house was. When he notices Norma Jean turning toward him and waving her arms, he wonders, "Is she beckoning to him? She seems to be doing an exercise for chest muscles." The reader has no clear answer, although the concluding sentence seems ominous: "The sky is unusually pale—the color of the dust ruffle Mabel made for their bed." But however a reader chooses to take the ending, Leroy and Norma Jean know themselves and each other more fully and have dealt with each other more honestly than ever before. The possibility for further growth, apart or together, is present.

—Joseph M. Flora