Jill McCorkle 2001Introduction
"Fish" is a short story by American writer Jill McCorkle. It was published in her third short story collection, Creatures of Habit (2001). "Fish" is the final piece of the collection, in which all the stories are set in McCorkle's fictional small town of Fulton, North Carolina. Fulton is the setting for many of McCorkle's stories and novels, drawn from her own experiences of growing up in the South. McCorkle is an award-winning contemporary writer known for her ability to evoke Southern life with humor and beauty. Critics agree that her talent as a writer is only improving as she continues to write.
"Fish" is a fictional memoir about the end of a man's life, as narrated by the younger of his two daughters. Surrounded by the family, the daughter ponders stories about her father's childhood, his parents, and her own childhood memories. Despite the sad subject of a parent's dying, McCorkle's short story is uplifting in its conclusion. The title of the story is symbolic, an allusion to the symbol for Jesus Christ. This short story does not show a family torn apart by grief but instead united by love. Through her remembrances, the narrator is able to keep her father close to her heart even as he dies.
Jill McCorkle was born July 7, 1958, in Lumberton, North Carolina, to John Wesley Jr. and Melba Ann (Collins) McCorkle. She studied creative writing with Max Steele and Lee Smith at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1980, the year she graduated, McCorkle won the Jesse Rehder Prize, the university's prestigious writing award. The following year she received a master's degree in writing from Hollins College.
McCorkle submitted her first novel, The Cheer Leader, to Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a new publisher founded by one of her former professors. Energized by her first sale, she quickly wrote and submitted her second novel, July 7th. The first book had not yet been released, so Algonquin decided to release the novels simultaneously in 1984, a daring move that garnered McCorkle a lot of critical attention for a first-time novelist. McCorkle's career never slowed down after that. In addition to prizes won while in college, McCorkle earned the New England Booksellers' Association Award in 1993 for her body of work; was named one of Granta magazine's Best Young American Novelists in 1996; won the North Carolina Prize for Literature and the Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, both in 1999. Five of her eight books have been Notable Books of the Year recommended by the New York Times Book Review. McCorkle's Creatures of Habit (2001) is a short story collection which includes "Fish."
As of the early 2000s, McCorkle filled in the time between novels by writing reviews and short stories. Her reviews have appeared in the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, New York Woman, and the New York Times Book Review. Her short stories have been published by high profile journals such as Cosmopolitan and the Atlantic Monthly.
McCorkle has taught writing at the University of North Carolina, Tufts University, Duke University, Harvard University, Bennington College, and Brandeis University. As of 2006, McCorkle lived outside Boston with her husband and two children.
"Fish" begins with news that a man, sixty-four years old, has just found out that he is dying. The cause—whether cancer or something else—is never given. Family and friends gather to comfort the man, including a woman who nursed him back from pneumonia when he was two years old. She saved him then but cannot save him now. His younger daughter narrates this story, and she recalls her father's childhood despair that he might die as did his stillborn brother. He has two older brothers and two older sisters, but his "partner" died. This sense of loss initiated a depression that haunted him for much of his life.
The narrator's eleven-year-old nephew sits with his dying grandfather and tells him all the stories the grandfather made up for him when he was very young. All of his grandchildren are there, and their affection for him is plain to see. The youngest grandchild is the narrator's baby son. Her father asks her to hold him up high so he can see the baby: "I want to see his whole body," her father says.
The narrator recalls her father's fear of water and how, nonetheless, he would wade into the pool up to his chest (the edge within reach) to watch his younger daughter dive and to cheer for her. They also went fishing together, standing in water up to their hips, and he would warn her about all the dangers of ocean fishing. Once she caught a toadfish which swallowed her hook, and her father cut the line to free it. "But just think of the fishtales he'll have for his children and grandchildren. He will always be the one that got away." He made light of it, but his daughter saw sadness in him.
Back in the present, the narrator, along with her mother and sister, Jeannie, sing her father's favorite songs for him. They are well-known love songs from the 1930s.
The narrator remembers that, before she left for college, her father gave her advice on how to be safe, and he assured her that she's never too old to come home. True to his word, when she calls him years later and asks him to come get her because she is leaving her marriage, he overcomes his fear of flying to go to her, pack up her things, and drive her home. Now, at forty years of age, the narrator is the prepared one, ready for any possibility, taking safety precautions as if second nature. It will be her turn now to pass her father's advice on to her children.
She recounts a memory of her childhood, a time she thinks her father does not remember. Their family used to take vacations to Ocean Drive in South Carolina where they rented the bottom floor of a beachside cottage and had an obnoxious upstairs neighbor who greased his body and whistled "Red Red Robin" constantly. She and her sister, Jeannie, five and nine years old respectively, buried a note on that beach in 1963 for their future selves to return to and dig up. They remembered that day, a day that was not more outstanding than any other except that it was summer vacation and their dreams were of mansions and Cadillacs and fluffy pets. Her most vivid memory of that summer is of having to clean up Play-Doh that she pressed into the rug of the rental cottage. It was difficult to pick out all the pieces, and she knew as she was sitting there cleaning it that she would remember this experience.
Casting farther into the past, the narrator remembers her paternal grandfather. Despite hardships while growing up, such as his father's alcoholism and their repossessed belongings, her father only said nice things about his father to his children, and they grew up loving him unconditionally. As a schoolboy, the narrator's father used to play hooky to go downtown and shoot pool in a dark hall. "Your eyes were always drawn to the light." The narrator describes in frank terms her father's struggle with depression:
How frightened you must have been the first time you could not find any light at all. The times your heart was so heavy you could not rise up from the bed…. And there were many people willing to let you believe that … your overwhelming sense of loss and sadness made you less of a man.
The narrator was astonished and dismayed to learn how little understanding people had of depression and how they disrespected her father, a result of their ignorance. She and Jeannie stayed by their father's side when he was laid up in his bedroom with depression one summer in their childhood. They were afraid to leave him, afraid for him to leave them. When he was later hospitalized, his girls were too young to be allowed inside the hospital, so he came out to hug his daughters and apologize for being there. They rode home looking at a card their father gave them "about love and joy and the birth of spring." The card, the narrator recalls, "made us sad. The only resurrection I cared about was yours."
Life was renewed for their little family when their father came home from the hospital once and for all. "You were young and had many years ahead of you." Her father said the same thing to her when she left her marriage. Less than a year later, her grandfather had a stroke and was afflicted with throat cancer. The narrator went to the hospital to see her grandfather but had to wait outside. She asked her father to read her "The Little Match Girl," her favorite story at that time because it made her cry, and she liked to cry.
It had become a kind of hobby, this need to imagine myself or someone I loved taken away. I had to prepare myself. Even now, I feel that's what I'm doing—every word, every image is a match struck in an attempt to hold on.
As her father dies, both the narrator and her sister are aware of death's imminence, as if from a sixth sense. They gather their mother and their uncle and watch this beloved man quietly pass away with one last blink of his eyes.
The narrator has two dreams about her father after he dies. First, she dreams that she has put his limp body on a swing, tying his arms to the chains to hold him in place. She is a kid, and he is wearing a robe and slippers. People pass by and tell her that she is sick and should not be holding onto the dead. She insists repeatedly that he is not dead. Eventually, they all go away, and when she and her father are alone, he lifts his head and winks at her, saying "You're right … I am not dead."
The narrator's final recollection is of her grandfather and his collie, Bruno, and how they walked to the corner store every afternoon. "This is how I remember your father. Small and neat with a hat he politely tipped at everyone he passed." He held her hand while crossing the street. He had the same blue-grey eyes as his son. In the second dream, the narrator sees her father in a mirror. He cannot speak to her because he is using all of his energy just to be visible. Her mother and sister join her in the room. The three of them are reflected in the mirror along with her father's image, briefly making them a whole family once more. He tells her in her dream, as he did before he died: "You are my heart; that's all that there is."
The narrator's father finds out he is dying at the relatively young age of sixty-four. This story of his last days is narrated by the younger of his two daughters. He is the son of a butcher whose family fell on hard times, possibly because of his father's alcoholism. He is the youngest of five, having two sisters and two brothers. As a child, he felt that his partner was missing because of a stillborn baby boy born the year before he was. He also worried that he would die because he was somehow linked to the dead baby.
Despite a sad beginning to his life, he overcame pneumonia at the age of two and continued to be courageous into adulthood: saving his cat, taking care of his father, venturing into water and onto an airplane for his daughter, and finally, facing death without flinching. He never let his phobias get the best of him although these fears were not permanently overcome.
The narrator's father was not perfect, though. He suffered from depression and was eventually hospitalized for this condition, and his long absences were painful to his family. But when he finally came home and was feeling better, the narrator remembers, "it felt like life was starting again." The end of his life is filled with family, love, and memory. The remembrances of his daughter keep his spirit alive even as his body dies. Readers see his spirit in the almost otherworldly dreams the narrator has after her father dies. His voiceless communication with her implies that she and he understand something that no one else does.
The narrator's paternal grandfather was a butcher by trade. He had a drinking problem that may or may not have been the cause of his family's financial hardship. The narrator hints at an uneasy relationship between father and son and even recalls a story about her father carrying home her drunken grandfather when he made a public scene at a high school football game.
The narrator's memories of her grandfather are gentle and loving despite the man's troubled life. She recalls with fondness how he held her hand when crossing the street; how he smelled of bourbon and cigarette ash; how he tipped his hat to people as he passed them on the street; how he walked to the corner store every day with his old collie, Bruno. He did not know how to talk to his son about his son's depression, but he came to see him nonetheless because there was love between them.
The grandfather died not long after his son came home from the hospital after being treated for depression. He suffered a paralyzing stroke but died from throat cancer, his voice cut off.
Jeannie is the narrator's older sister. She has an eleven-year-old son and possibly other children. She is present with the rest of the family while their father is dying. One of the narrator's memories of her sister is of a summer vacation at the beach in South Carolina. Jeannie was nine years old, and the narrator was five. Jeannie wrote a note about who they were and their vacation, and the two girls swore that when they were older they would come back and dig it up. Jeannie's dream for their future is of Cadillac convertibles, mansions, and handsome husbands. Now an adult, she attends her father in his last days along with her sister and mother, wrapped in love and a reality that does not include mansions and convertibles.
Jeannie's son is eleven years old, the eldest of the grandchildren. He and his grandfather share a special bond through the stories his grandfather made up for him when he was a small boy. Now, while his grandfather is on his deathbed, Jeannie's son quietly tells these stories back him as if he can keep his beloved relative alive by keeping his stories, his words, alive.
The narrator's mother figures very little in the story. Her husband is dying, and she is present, helping her daughters care for him in his last days. With her daughters, she sings her husband's favorite songs to him, hoping to make a connection, to communicate her love when he is beyond physical communication.
The narrator is the second daughter of a man who suddenly learns he is dying at the relatively young age of sixty-four. She has a baby boy, whom her father asks to see while on his deathbed. She was once married, but it did not work out, and her father helped her leave her husband by flying out to where she was (despite his fear of flying), packing up a rental car with her belongings, and driving straight home. She also remembers, from when she was five years old, the beach cottage that her family rented in South Carolina, although those memories are somewhat disjointed and formed of vibrant sensations: the red Play-Doh smashed into the rug; the neighbor singing "Red Red Robin" continuously; the time-capsule note. Her father used to take her swimming, although he stayed by the edge because of his fear of water. One particularly poignant memory concerns a time when they were fly-fishing, and her father helped cut loose a fish that had swallowed the hook. She could see his veiled melancholy, an echo of the fish's fate.
As the narrator, her sister, and her mother help to ease his dying, the narrator gathers these memories together as a way to keep her father close even after he is gone. She loves her father deeply.
Very Old Woman
The very old woman comes to visit the dying father. She once nursed him back to health from pneumonia when he was two years old. Now she can do nothing for him except give him comfort.
Resurrection means to rise from the dead or to revive. Resurrection is the narrator's primary theme in "Fish." Many of the narrator's memories over the course of the story are concerned with little moments in which resurrection has occurred or nearly occurred, for example, the father's birth a year after his stillborn brother; his childhood recovery from pneumonia; his depression and subsequent recovery as an adult; and the daughter leaving her marriage and starting her life anew. The imminence of death comes as a surprise to the father at the beginning of "Fish," but he accepts it gracefully, sad only that he will miss watching his grandchildren grow. The memories the narrator recalls are a foil against death and its finality and serve to imbue a dying man with life, reviving him momentarily to the fullness of being.
At the end of the short story, the family is not mourning the father's death so much as seeing him in a new realm of existence. The narrator dreams that she is the only one who knows her father is really still alive. Then, in another dream he joins her, her sister, and her mother in a mirrored image that temporarily brings them together again. The idea that a loved one is in a different place rather than just dead and inanimate can be comforting to those left behind. The sense of transformation after death—resurrection to a new realm of being—gives the ending of the story an uplifted note. Death becomes a beginning of something new rather than an end of the mortal life.
The title "Fish" and the theme of resurrection also resonate with the Christian religion. In the early days of the Roman Empire, practicing Christians were persecuted, and these people may have kept their identities and meetings secret by using the ichthys symbol. The word, ichthys, is Greek for "fish" and may have been appropriated as a Christian symbol for a number of reasons; one is the story in which Jesus feeds five thousand people with only a small amount of fish and bread. Another idea is that letters of the Greek word for fish serve as an acronym for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.
As given in her dream, the daughter believes in her father's ongoing life despite the denial of others around her, which could be understood as a reference to Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was a disciple of Jesus who witnessed his crucifixion. She later discovered the sepulcher of Jesus was empty and saw a vision of angels that reassured her of his resurrection and ascension to heaven.
Familial love is immediately present in "Fish" with the narrator's grief over her father's impending death and the gathering of her family to be with him, to care for him, and to be with each other. But as the narrator reflects on her and her father's past, the same strong love that ties this small family (father, mother, and two daughters) together is a thread that runs back through her father's life as well. Despite the financial hardships his parents faced, his father's alcoholism, and other unspoken tensions between father and son that the narrator alludes to, she affirms to her father, "you only said nice things and we grew up to love him." This family has stuck together and cared for each other even when it meant the narrator's father, as a young man, carrying his drunken father home from a high school football game after he caused a scene. Their love was not necessarily spoken, but it was unfailingly present.
The narrator remembers the absence of her father due to his severe depression. She did not blame him, only feared to lose him, to lose anyone. She clung to the story "The Little Match Girl," by Hans Christian Andersen, when she was young. That story is about a child who sells boxes of matches on the street to earn money for her and her father. One cold New Year's Eve night she lights match after precious match, using them up in order to keep warm. Eventually, she dies of the cold. The narrator acknowledges that her memories are like matches struck "in an attempt to hold on."
The final scenes after her father's death are not ones of grief and mourning but instead of dreams the narrator has in which her father is alive, her family brought back together. In one she sees her father in a mirror. Her mother and sister enter the room and the three of them look at the family of four standing together in the mirror image. In this dream, her father repeats what he told her on his deathbed: "You are my heart; that's all that there is." As he dies, she whispers to him, "I'll be looking for you." The ties of love in this family are not broken by death.
Metaphor is a figure of speech in which one subject is described in terms of a dissimilar subject, in order to suggest an analogy. McCorkle uses metaphor directly at the beginning of the story when the narrator describes her father's "metaphor for life": "You WERE TERRIFIED of the water, but you loved to step into it, chest deep, pool edge within reach." The narrator's father was a courageous man, who coped with his fears by assuring his safety. She recalls his coming in the water to cheer for her when she dove and swam around him.
Topics For Further Study
- McCorkle is a Southern writer. All of her novels and short stories are set in or around the fictional town of Fulton, North Carolina. What landscape have you grown up in? How would you describe it to others, both those who are familiar and those who are unfamiliar with the place where you grew up? Write a story, create a movie, or record a podcast to evoke that landscape and its people.
- Depression is a serious illness that can be debilitating. Research the history, symptoms, and treatments for depression. How is depression represented in this story? Write a short research paper about what you learn.
- A good title points to the central idea or subject of a story. Form a small group with a couple other students, and discuss the title's various meanings for this story, as it connects both to the story's characters and its events. Give a five minute presentation about your conclusions.
- Listen to recordings of the songs mentioned in the story, such as "Blue Moon" and "When You're Smiling." Who were they written and originally performed by? When were they first recorded? What do these songs tell you about the father in the story, knowing that these were his favorite? Put on a class presentation in which you play recordings of these songs and explain their relevance in the story as a way of characterizing the father and placing him in a certain time period.
- Read the rest of McCorkle's collection Creatures of Habit. Does "Fish" make more sense in context with the other stories? How effective is her use of animal titles? What do you think the title of the book means? Write an essay comparing "Fish" to one or two other stories in the collection.
The toadfish the narrator catches suggests her father's ability to continue on despite problems. The hook is lodged too deeply in the fish for her father to remove it, so he cuts the line and lets the "poor old guy" swim away. The fish had a narrow escape and will live despite the hook in his body. As if drawing a comparison to himself, the father says, "But just think of the fishtales he'll have for his children and grandchildren. He will always be the one that got away." The father has lived through difficulties as a child, had depression through his adult life, and yet he has been able to go on, relating with his children and grandchildren.
Tone is the manner of expression used by the writer to convey mood, emotion, setting, or some other desired quality. The tone used by McCorkle's narrator is at first nostalgic as she reflects on her and her father's lives. She remembers events, even those from before she was born, but these are stories of her family that have been given to her. They are an oral history of sorts. The narrator's nostalgia is also accented by grief, as she watches her father die. The moment of dying can be fraught with desperation, a chance for one last opportunity, one last interaction, one last word. The dying man's wife and children beg him to blink. It is his one remaining mode of communication, the only thing on his body he can move. He obliges them, and with one final blink of his eyes, he is dead.
"Fish" ends with a definite turn toward sadness in the tone as the narrator comes to terms with her father's death. In the end, in a dream, they are briefly reunited, and the father reassures the daughter, "You are my heart; that's all that there is." The story ends on an uplifted note as the daughter promises her father as he dies that she will be looking for him.
Direct Address and Tense
"Fish" is written in first person point of view with the narrator addressing her dying father as "you." The use of direct address conveys intimacy and privacy, a communication between the speaker and a specific person. The communication is not intended for everyone, just the one being addressed. Direct address, thus, draws the reader into what in meant for only one other person. To add immediacy to this sense of privacy, McCorkle writes the story in present tense. The narrator's memories are reported in the past tense, certain past events in the father's life are also reported in past event, but the time stretching out in the present are the hours of vigil at the dying man's bedside. The narrator says, "When you come home from the hospital this time, we know that it is the beginning of the end." Some present time later, she says, "On the afternoon you die, we keep asking for a sign, a blink, a twitch." The family wants some communication back from the father, some acknowledgement. They sing to him; they hope he hears them. In the end, at the moment before he dies, "when your eyes were still able to blink," she says, he speaks his final words, "You are my heart; that's all that there is." The deep connection between father and daughter is conveyed. The direct address and the present tense put the reader right there in the room when the father dies, right at the moment of dying.
U.S. Economy in Twentieth Century
"Fish" covers much of the twentieth century in the United States. One memory is from the father's childhood in the early 1930s when the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. The Great Depression lasted for over a decade (1929–1941), ending with U.S. involvement in World War II, which created jobs and opportunities. The postwar era was a time of economic growth as the United States soared ahead of European, war-torn countries in its productivity and exportation of goods. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the U.S. economy became stagnant and then recessed, but the 1990s saw considerable growth. The present-day setting of the story is the early 1990s, when the United States was on the cusp of significant economic expansion. This expansion was matched and stimulated by exponential growth of Internet and other information technology businesses. Silicon Valley (a nickname for the Santa Clara Valley and nearby areas in northern California where many silicon chip manufacturers are located) became famous nationwide as a place in which to live and work as these businesses thrived. During the 1990s, inflation was low (money was worth more), interest rates were low (it was cheaper to borrow money for large purchases), and consumer confidence was high (Americans were more readily spending their money). Unemployment rates fell below 5 percent, the lowest they had been for thirty years. During this time, the United States was the dominant world power, and the globalization of the U.S. economy began to increase. Democratic president Bill Clinton was elected to his first term in 1992, and by the time his second term ended in 2001, the U.S. government was running on a budget surplus for the first time in thirty years. President Clinton claimed that his 1993 tax increase was the reason for the budget surplus and the stimulated economy, but many Republicans disagreed.
Terrorism in the United States
While the narrator was young, her biggest worry was her father's depression. During the father's and daughter's lives, the United States went through several wars, but their family was not directly affected. Starting in the early 1990s, during the present-day setting of this story, terrorism unfortunately became a significant topic in the United States.
The World Trade Center—also known as the Twin Towers—in New York City was first bombed in 1993 by Islamic radicals who were opposed to the international role of the United States. There were several incidents of domestic terrorist attacks (those perpetrated by U.S. citizens) in the intervening years: the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski (1978–1995); the Oklahoma City bombing (April 19, 1995); and the Centennial Olympic Park bombing (July 27, 1996).
The largest terrorist attack carried out on U.S. soil happened on September 11, 2001. That morning, four large airplanes fueled for cross-country flights were hijacked by a total of nineteen Arabic terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda, an Islamic fundamentalist group led by Osama bin Laden. Between 8:46 and 10:03 a.m., two of the airplanes were forced to crash into the World Trade Center towers, one crashed into the west wall of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the last crash occurred in a field in Pennsylvania after the terrorists on that plane apparently failed to achieve their target (reputed to be the White House) and were perhaps overcome by the other passengers.
McCorkle broke ranks as a newly published author when Algonquin Books, her North Carolina-based publisher, simultaneously released her first two novels, July 7th and The Cheer Leader in 1984. She has been a darling of critics, garnering five New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year citations as well as other prestigious awards. As of 2006, she had three short story collections and five novels in print, all published by Algonquin.
Creatures of Habit, the collection in which "Fish" was published, was well received by critics. Joanne Wilkinson, reviewing for Booklist, considers McCorkle's collection to be darker than her other work, which is not a negative assessment, simply an observation. Her summation is that McCorkle "writes near-perfect dialogue and is able to create powerful emotional moods within the space of a few paragraphs." An unsigned review from Publishers Weekly is equally glowing, congratulating the author on not writing to formula despite her animal-centric framework. This reviewer also writes that McCorkle has a "poet's skill" and is "at the top of her game." Jo Manning at Library Journal highly recommends McCorkle's collection, comparing her with classic Southern writers such as Eudora Welty and Truman Capote. Susan Millar Williams, writing for the Woman's Review of Books, is likewise laudatory although she also states that she could do without the animal centered titles.
Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, Ullmann examines the function of memory in McCorkle's short story.
McCorkle's short story "Fish" is something of a memoir, capturing for the reader particular events in the lives of the narrator and her dying father. While the narrator's theme is resurrection, her method is memory. The sequence of memories is not strictly chronological, and this story does not pretend to be the narrator's autobiography. Autobiographies tend to be more committed to spanning the history of a person's entire life. Memoirs tend to be more topical, consisting of bits of experience, selected to illustrate a particular theme. In this story, the narrator characterizes her now dying father by remembering scenes and experiences with him from her childhood. Through memories she shows his courage and quick action in saving his cat, his pride and compassion in carrying his drunken father home, his thoughtfulness in keeping the relationships between his children and his grandfather free of his own issues with his father, and his struggle with depression that challenged him until he succumbed and had to be saved himself. Despite the obstacles in his life, he seems to have been a positive person and a loving father. When he finds out that he is dying, he only says, "I am sixty-four years old and I have had a good life." He is relatively young to be dying, but he has overcome so much and lived a life rich in love. Through her memories of her father, the narrator shows her love for him, and she keeps his humble and affectionate spirit alive.
Memory is evoked through the physical senses. Smell is, in many ways, the strongest memory inducer because it is complex, thorough, and visceral. Particular smells can bring back memories and connected emotions. Sometimes the memory is unconscious until a person encounters the smell that brings the memory to consciousness. The narrator recalls, while thinking about her grandfather: "I fell in love with a boy who smelled like him only to later realize that the treasured memory I carried of your father was one of straight bourbon and cigarette gone to ash." Bourbon and cigarettes are not necessarily nice smells, but the narrator has connected them with her grandfather, whom she loves, so for her those smells bring on good memories and feelings. This association of smell with the grandfather also reveals the significance for the narrator's father of having a father himself who was an alcoholic.
The eleven-year-old son of Jeannie, the narrator's sister, has his fond memories of his grandfather tied up in word and sound. He is the narrator's nephew, her father's eldest grandchild. He remembers all of the stories that his grandfather told him while he was growing up. He sits by his grandfather's bed as the older man is dying, remembering those stories and telling them back to him. The narrator says that her father and this boy have a similar ability to remember details: "It is a secret he shares with you." The stories the boy tells to his grandfather are a comfort to them both, a sign of their intimacy. Like the narrator with her memories of her father, the nephew retells these stories; telling them is his way of keeping his grandfather alive. All of his grandchildren have been given stories, and they now come to their grandfather with secrets and kisses to make him smile. The narrator can also connect to her father through a story he read to her. Her favorite fairytale as a child was Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl." The story made her cry, and she liked crying because she felt it prepared her to lose people she loved such as her father (to depression) and her grandfather (to throat cancer). Many years later, watching her father slowly die, the narrator sees herself again as the match girl, and she concludes, "every word, every image is a match struck in an attempt to hold on." "Fish" is the narrator's metaphorical box of spent matches.
Trying to remind their father of better times, to bring him comfort, the narrator, Jeannie, and their mother sing to him even though he is past being able to respond or even blink a reply. These songs are like stylized memories of happier days. They sing his favorite songs, popular love tunes from the 1930s such as "Blue Moon" and "All of Me." This music is also a comfort for the women. Even though he cannot reply, they continue to sing, feeling close to him through the music that he loved.
The narrator has a vivid memory from the summer of 1963 when she was five years old and her sister was nine. She remembers the tactile experience of cleaning red Play-Doh from the braided rug of their rented beach cottage in South Carolina. The work and the repentance involved in cleaning that rug struck her even then, young as she was, as having the potential to be an enduring memory.
I knew even as I sat there, rubbing and picking, that I would never forget, that I would think of it often. That I would grow up to believe that rectifying a mistake is sometimes reason enough to exist.
Memory is notable for its unreliability when held up against fact. So much of what people experience through their senses is ultimately colored by a partial understanding of events, by emotion, prejudice, preference, even by attention span. Given all the filters, the actual facts concerning an event can be drastically altered as they are housed in memory, making memory a potentially unreliable way to collect history. But memory is important to one's self concept and one's sense of personal history. As emotional and subjective as memory is, it is the retrieval mechanism people have by which to revisit the past. In her memories, the narrator stores her love of her father, love that can be communicated to others when she reminisces.
The memories relived in "Fish" range from small, almost trivial events to momentous occasions. The narrator remembers how her grandfather held her hand when they crossed the street. She thinks about how her father freed his cat and how he carried his drunken father home. She recalls her father in the hospital being treated for depression and how she and her sister visited him, wanting him to come home. Given the emotional nature of memory, not all recollections are momentous. It is what the memory comes to signify that matters most.
The narrator recalls going fishing with her father. He helped her cut loose a toadfish that had swallowed her hook and threw the fish back into the water. The narrator recalls her father clearly—the gaiety and laughter overlaying a shadow of old disappointment. He told her, "just think of the fish-tales he'll have for his children and grandchildren. He will always be the one that got away." This fish served as a metaphor for her father; both the fish and her father had a close escape from death. His stories have now become his daughter's memories.
What Do I Read Next?
- Downhome: An Anthology of Southern Women Writers (1995), edited by Susie Mee, is a collection of fiction, spanning many decades, from powerful voices of women in the South such as Lee Smith, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, and Flannery O'Connor.
- July 7th (1984), one of McCorkle's first two novels, tells with humor and action the tale of an unsolved murder at a small town convenience store.
- The Cheer Leader (1984), one of McCorkle's first two published novels, tells the story of Jo Spencer, a young woman who is perfect and accomplished in every way until one year in college when her life spirals out of control.
- Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic (1995) is a novel about the Owens sisters, who are raised by their aunts who practice magic. As adults, the sisters both escape this strange life, but eventually they are drawn back to their childhood home in a small New England town for a surprising revelation.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), by Zora Neale Hurston, tells the story of Janie Crawford, a black woman in her forties during the late nineteenth century. Janie tells her life story (which includes three marriages) to her friend Pheoby. Hurston was a renowned African American folklorist and author from the South.
- Oral History (1983), by Southern writer Lee Smith, is a novel about a young woman in college who returns to her home in Appalachian Virginia to record an oral history of her family. The story she hears includes information about a curse, murder, and suicide.
- Harper Lee's 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is the story of an eight-year-old girl, her brother, and their lawyer father during the Depression in Alabama. In their town, a black man is accused of raping a white girl, and the lawyer defends the black man but loses the case due to local racial prejudice.
- The Optimist's Daughter (1972), by Eudora Welty, is a novel about Laurel Hand, a woman who returns home to Mississippi when her stalwart father falls ill and then dies. Laurel reflects upon her past and comes to a better understanding of her family. Welty's novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
- The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Carson McCullers's first novel, is about a deaf-mute man in a 1930s Georgia mill town and the lives of four of his close acquaintances.
The narrator draws on these memories as a way to keep her father's spirit alive, to figuratively resurrect him from his deathbed. On the outside, she sings to him his favorite love songs, playing to his own sense of memory in order to comfort him. Inside, she relives her memories of their lives just as her nephew relives his grandfather's stories by reciting them back to him. Their recitals are a requiem, or lament, for the dead, except for the re-occurring theme of resurrection and for the narrator's dreams at the end of the story. Through memory, she has found a part of her father—the stories of his life—that is still vibrant and alive. Although her father dies, she has not given up on his life. "You are my heart," he tells her, "that's all that there is." A few days later, she replies, "I'll be looking for you." The narrator's father will always be there, captured within his daughter's memories of him.
Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on "Fish," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Jill McCorkle and Sherry Ellis
Ellis is the editor of NOW WRITE! a collection of fiction writing exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin in September, 2006. Illuminating Fiction, her anthology of author interviews, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in September, 2007. She is at work on a novel and a collection of non-fiction writing exercises. Her author interviews have also appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Writer's Chronicle, Glimmer Train, and AGNI, as well as other literary and arts magazines. A personal writing coach, she teaches writing in Concord, Massachusetts. In the following interview, Ellis talks with the author about Creatures of Habit, her theme of connecting animal traits to human behavior, autobiographical threads in her stories as well as other themes, her writing process, and being a Southern writer.
Jill McCorkle was raised in Lumberton, North Carolina. The summer after she completed second grade she transformed her father's wooden work shed into a writing room and decorated it with dress-up clothing, a tea set, and fishing gear. When she was twenty-six her first two novels, The Cheerleader and July 7th, were published to critical acclaim. She has published five additional works of fiction to date: Tending To Virginia (1989), Ferris Beach (1991), Crash Diet: Stories (1992), Carolina Moon (1996, an excerpt of which appeared in AGNI 44), Final Vinyl Days and Other Stories (1998), and Creatures of Habit (2001). Five of these works have been selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year.
"Billy Goats," the first story in Creatures of Habit, was originally published in Bomb magazine and subsequently selected for The Best American Short Stories 2002. Richard Bausch called this collection "so rich, so complete an experience … McCorkle paints everything with such clarity, and beauty … With every line, she incites my awe and wonder."
McCorkle's short stories have been widely published in literary journals and commercial magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan, and Ladies Home Journal. Her new story, "Intervention" appears in the Fall issue of Ploughshares. She has also reviewed books for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
She has received the New England Booksellers Association Award for her body of work in fiction, the Jon Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. In 1996 she was included in Granta's celebration of the Best of Young American Novelists. She now teaches writing at Bennington College and has also taught at Harvard, Brandeis, Duke, Tufts, and the University of North Carolina.
McCorkle is frequently described as a "Southern writer," despite the fact that she has been living in Greater Boston for the past ten years with her husband and children. Recently, I joined in her living room while her three dogs relaxed nearby. Resting in the corner of the room was a large Victorian dollhouse that McCorkle built and decorated herself.
[Sherry Ellis:] In Creatures of Habit you revisit the fictional town of Fulton. What made you decide to return?
[Jill McCorkle:] I think I've always returned there, whatever I've named it. It's certainly my fictional hometown, which is very much like my real hometown, but not the way it looks now, the way it looked when I was a child.
I know we always look back with a nostalgic glance, but I really did have a great sense of freedom and ownership of the town in which I was raised. It was a time when children went out until the street lights came on, and if our parents had known where we were and what we were doing they would have had heart attacks. There was just all this freedom. One of my favorite places to sit was under the bridge of the I-95 overpass.
That time in my hometown marks not just the transition for me into adolescence and adulthood, but I think also represents the transition of the South into what is now most often referred to as the New South. As I was growing up, I-95 started to pass through my town. As a result, there was a huge growth spurt and suddenly there were billboards and fast-food chains. The interstate connected us in a way that I never felt connected before.
The stories in this collection are named after animals and have woven into them the common movements, characteristics, and experiences that animals and humans share. In the story "Cats" you liken an ex-husband to a misplaced cat. Later in the same story, Anne, the ex-wife, wonders, "Why else do women so easily settle in with their litters and nests; why do the females in nature blend into the background while the males remain flashy and continue life as sexual predators?" In the story "Dogs" the main characters states, "If I were a dog I would have been put down by now." How did you decide to explore this theme?
Well, it's funny. I didn't begin this collection with the idea of all the animal connections; it evolved as I was writing. I often think there are natural thematic connections when you have a whole litter of story ideas at the same time. I wasn't just writing one story and putting it down; I had many stored up, and as I was moving from story to story—sketching out what I did know—I started to see the connections. Actually the opening story, "Billy Goats," was written more as a mood piece than anything. I didn't want the characters directly connected, but I wanted there to be the sense that these people populated the same community. This is where as a writer I realize that it's so valuable for me to take notes of little things I notice in life along the way. Sometimes I hold onto them for years.
The whole idea for "Cats" was inspired by my family losing a favorite cat and actually burying him in Tupperware in my yard (I was afraid he'd explode). So, in real life there was the loss of this cat, which made me think about other cats, particularly one from childhood who was lost for weeks and ultimately found his way home. I was greatly influenced by the likes of "Thomasina and The Incredible Journey," the Walt Disney movie, and I started imagining a situation where a person is attempting a similar journey. It led to the idea of a man with early Alzheimer's who actually thinks his home is with the first wife instead of the new wife across town. What started out as a more darkly comical theme, about the cat and the Tupperware mausoleum, turned into something much sadder.
In "Tippy's Teeth," an essay you wrote for "the Algonkian"—a promotional pamphlet put out by Algonquin—you state that "human behavior is not so far removed from the most primitive animal behavior as we like to think," for example that "we all crave a sense of the den" and that "a person who is that insecure and fearful is likely—metaphorically—to lunge and bite." Can you please comment on this and offer a few examples of how you demonstrate these similarities in your stories?
I do believe we all crave the security of home. I think we like to believe that our loyalties are not in vain. And, I think that some of our worst reactions in life are fear-driven. A trapped or frightened animal lashes out in an attempt to survive and humans do the same. Dogs are put down or "sent to the country" as my Tippy was for aggressive behavior.
I was talking to a friend on a particularly stressful day and I said: "If I was a dog I'd have been put down by now." I knew even as I said it that I'd use it for a first line. As I explained in "Tippy's Teeth," I did once accidentally kill a cat by dipping it in a flea dip designed for dogs and I used that incident in my story. For me it was a kind of exorcism as I'd been haunted by the memory for years; I still can't bear to think about it.
The main character in the story "Billy Goats" recalls her life as a seventh-grader, when she and her friends prowled through their neighborhood in a pack, "a herd of kids on banana-seat bikes and minibikes," as they discuss their community, the lives and deaths of people they know, and their own vulnerability. How much of this story is based on your own childhood experience?
Very much. I felt the opening story and the closing story about the death of the father were my stories, and as close to reality as I'm going to get. The facts aren't necessarily true but the voice and the place are.
I think every town has its stories. I tell my students to write about the character in their community, that person whom everybody takes for granted, laughs about, talks about; or to think of the cases of domestic sadness you can reel off in the moment. I mean here in the town I live in now, there is a house that is referred to as "the divorce house." There's always a divorce house, a suicide house. In my home town there was a house we referred to as the murder-suicide house. When my husband and I were looking for houses I drove the realtor crazy because I kept saying there must be something with a house, if we could afford it. Was there a suicide? Was there a murder? I'm superstitious enough to be bothered by such. I guess there were enough people asking the questions because the realtors have to tell you these things. I think those are the situations and landmarks that really inform childhood; you begin to learn about what's bad and what's not right in the parental world.
Your writing has been referred to as "Southern" and is compared to Eudora Welty's. What does being a Southern writer mean to you?
Well I have no problem being called a Southern writer because clearly as soon as I open my mouth there's the proof. And the South is very much my writing home as well. Even though characters sometimes wind up in different places than where they begin.
There's certainly a wonderful tradition in history that I'm proud to be associated with. I think other characteristics of Southern writing, not that they don't apply to other writers, is that there is a lot of attention to a strong sense of place, and there is also a wonderful tradition of oral storytelling. I think that any community or group that, for whatever reason, has been cut off from the rest of the world, usually does have an oral tradition—because it's so important to make sure that the legacy is handed over. And of course in the South, not only was there the War, which of course is what everyone immediately associates with Southern people, but there were other roadblocks as well, literacy being one of the biggest. I mean, my grandmother was very fortunate that she went through the ninth grade; my grandfather only completed the third. So they could tell stories they never would have been able to write. There was a lot of power in the spoken word, and it was revered as such, I think. I think a lot of that oral tradition is classic in Southern literature. You can't get from point A to point B easily, you've got to wander off to the side and tell this story. The writer Barry Hannah tells his version of the light bulb joke: How many Southern writers does it take to change a bulb? Two … one to unscrew it and the other to talk about what a good old light bulb it was.
When you were in the second grade your motivation as a writer was to get a laugh or a tear. Is this still your goal?
I think as a child it was wonderful to discover that I had this power to make myself laugh or cry, and of course that grew into wanting to have the effect on others. Often what I see or hear in the world strikes me as funny. I start with something that's making me laugh, and yet I'm enough of a realist that I never believe it's that simple; then I start looking for what's under the funny. It's a method I've used often in terms of the stories expanding to a different level. Again, the story "Cats" is a perfect example of this.
Do you think that your childhood and adult hobbies and pastimes, for example fishing and doll-house decorating, have helped you develop qualities that a writer needs?
Oh, totally, and I always like to credit my dad with this one. He always said that he loved to sit and look at the ocean, but that if he just sat there and stared and my mother saw, she would start nagging him: "What are you doing just sitting there? Go and do something."
He said, "This is why I fish". And he said the trick is that if they ever start biting too much, you stop baiting the hook. I was his fishing buddy. We rarely caught anything, but it was just that kind of quiet thinking time, and so I did learn a lot as a writer.
It's hard to justify to the world, especially to your family, why you're just going to sit in a chair and stare like a zombie. And so my whole life I've had hobbies that are solitary in nature. You know the saying "busy hands, busy minds." As an adult I built a dollhouse. The work of putting a house together and then decorating is very similar to writing a novel; you're creating this world and you have a certain level of control over it. Most of my activities are singular. When I think about sports or activities I liked growing up—ballet, gymnastics, swimming—I realize they were actions that didn't require me to interact with others. My mind was free to roam.
Do you believe all writers need "rooms of their own"?
Yes, I do, and I think all writers already have a room of their own in terms of within the self. I find when I don't get that quiet time nothing else in life feels quite right; I think it's a constant struggle to find a room of your own. I do have an office in my home, but when there is a lot going on in I can't work. Sometimes the room of my own is the car parked in the grocery store parking lot, or wherever I can get it.
Willa Cather once said, "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." Do you agree?
I do. I think we are very limited thematically and that's why we all identify with each other's stories. It's the specific detail and history that we can bring to them that makes our work or characters lives unique.
You are quoted as having said, "I have always believed that by the ripe age of adolescence … our emotional baggage is packed." In your novel The Cheerleader, a story about young women coming of age, Jo challenges stereotypes of popularity. Do you believe that Jo's and Beatrice's "emotional baggage is already packed"?
I think the characters have more than enough to think about and unpack and to understand through adulthood. I had a professor say to me when The Cheerleader came out, "My god, Jill! Most of us spend all our lives trying to forget all this stuff, and you have dedicated yourself to dredging it up." And I thought, well, I guess it's sort of an exorcism. It's such a classic period of life and I am interested in young women because there are so many fears and things that happen in that little space of time, the whole body image, the everything! I have to say it, but I don't necessarily think we've come too far in taking care of it.
I feel really drawn to that age group and more than any other work, I've gotten more letters about The Cheerleader, mainly from seniors in high school and freshman in college, and one, a letter that I will always treasure, from a grandmother who said that the book had helped her understand her granddaughter, which really meant a lot. I guess of all my books this is the one that most consistently gets the most letters, and they always begin with "Did you read my journal?" And it feels so good, and so right, that this is such a universal phenomena. We all fit somewhere on that spectrum of Jo and Beatrice. What I had wanted to show in that novel is regardless of stereotype—positive stereotype, negative stereotype—there are real dangers in being labeled by others. I think (I hope) that this book shows that these two girls have more in common than anyone would think.
Do you pre-select the time frame in which your stories and novels will occur?
No. The only time I consciously did that was with the novel July 7th, when I knew was going to write about just one day.
You have often written in the first person, as in your novels Ferris Beach and sections of Carolina Moon. When you write a story or a novel do you know beforehand which point of view you will use?
I don't always know, sometimes I flounder back and forth. I feel that usually if I stick with the story and keep revising it, the story dictates which point of view best serves it; the same with tense and genre, for that matter. Very often in student work I will see a student set out to write a story in third person, present tense, and it just won't stay there: it won't be in the past, they'll flip into the present, or they'll flip into "I," and so I can always tell when the story is pulled in another direction. I think that's something you listen to.
How do your choose your titles, for example Creatures of Habit?
Titles are often the last thing to come. I was very relieved to be able to look up Creatures of Habit. I thought it must have been used zillions of times. I think there was only one novel years ago. It's a phrase I use a lot, to describe myself. The other one that my husband always says in reference to me is "Spontaneity has its time and its place," and that's me: I have a plan and when I'm without a plan I've sort of lost the concept and I can't see. I'm always saying, "I'm a creature of habit." In childhood I went through that obsessive-compulsive thing where you have to go back and make sure the drawer is closed; then I had years of checking the coffee maker. Now I have one that automatically cuts off. I have a system and I am a creature of habit. I had jotted down a lot of title ideas and I was reading Darwin at the time, what I could read of Darwin. I kept tripping on the word "habit."
In the story "Crash Diet," Sandra White Barkley is left by her husband for a woman who is thinner and years younger than she is, and in the story "Departures," Anna Craven, a widow, spends her free time trying to escape from the emptiness of her home. Do the themes of these stories represent a feminist perspective?
Yes, I think so. It's so interesting, I'm glad you're asking this question because people often avoid the feminist question. I have all these young students now who will say, "Well, I'm not a feminist." And I'll say, "Well, of course you are, you should be. That's why you're sitting here taking this class." Somewhere along the line the word got distorted. I don't think all my characters are knowledgeable enough or wise enough that they would necessarily see it that way, but I guess I always feel that they're coming into their own. I love that Rebecca West quote, "I've never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat." So I do think they are feminists in nature in that they are finding a place in the world, and focusing on where they stand and how they affect others, rather than just how they are feeding into the lives of everyone else. It's not always pleasant. I think for someone like Anna, it's as if her limbs have been ripped off; Sandra is a bit more open about her independence, I think.
You've been living in Greater Boston for many years. Do you think that the sensibilities and styles of the North have influenced you as a writer?
Yes. If nothing else, I am always making a mental comparison to the way the experience might play out in the South. More than anything though, what I experience is how much humans—regardless of age, race, religion, geography or any other label you might choose—have in common. As a teacher—both in New England and in the South—I think the bigger differences have to do with urban or rural childhoods.
In the story "Final Vinyl Days" you write from a male perspective for the first time. Can you comment on what this experience was like for you?
That was a stretch. He was a hard character but it was a challenge I needed because I knew that one of my main characters in Carolina Moon was going to be a guy. Once I get inside a character and have a sense of who he is, then I don't think it matters that much. I really do think that if you find what is motivating a character emotionally, it allows you to transcend race and age and gender.
What are the greatest rewards of writing for you?
It always sounds so selfish when I think about it. For me, the greatest reward in writing is the stability and the pleasure that it brings to me. I love the act of writing. That may be why I have trouble rationalizing to everybody why I do it, because I've never come to a point where I feel like its work. I feel it is a real luxury. I think it is fantasy life.
What about the hardest parts of writing?
Sometimes it's the frustration of not being able to get there. I've never had just unlimited time to write, so I don't know how I would function that way. I've always taught and had responsibility with kids and family, so it's difficult sometimes to carve out that time. I also think that as much as writers are driven by the desire to be published and read by others, I think there's a kind of love-hate relationship—because I think the whole act of then being published is the antithesis of what your writing life is all about. I mean your writing life is cocooned and safe and then all of a sudden you're stripped and out there, and that's not always easy. I think you have to find ways to keep yourself upright and somehow attached to that center that makes you want to write anyway.
In a recent article you wrote for Food and Wine magazine, you quote the chef of a restaurant: "I need to know the rules before I break them." Do you believe this adage apply to writers too?
I think it applies to most endeavors. I certainly encourage students who want to write experimentally that they first go with the more conventional pieces, to show that they can do it. I think there is a lot to be learned within the basics and tradition that will only make it better as you experiment.
In another recent magazine article you wrote, this one for Real Simple, you state that comedy and humor helps people cope with tragedy. Do you believe that as a writer, you have purposely given your fictional characters humorous situations to help them cope with the traumas in their lives?
Absolutely. Or maybe more specifically, I believe there is always humor to be found. Even within the most hideous situations, people continue to say and do quirky things.
Who are the writers that you believe have most influenced your work?
That's a very long list. I can certainly say among contemporary writers my teachers Lee Smith and Louis Rubin and Max Steele, and in terms of just "old faithfuls" and writers I feel I've learned a tremendous amount from reading, the bulk of them being of the old southern school: Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter. I would also have to say Sherwood Anderson; Winesburg, Ohio is one of those books that made a huge impact on me as a writer.
Justice Brandeis is quoted as having said, "There is no great writing, only great rewriting." When you have finished revising your work how similar is it to your initial draft?
It varies piece to piece, but I would say quite different, I would hope different. I would say that the first draft for me, especially with stories, is like a skeleton and then each run of revision is like transparencies in an anatomy book, you're adding the muscles and the tissues and the organs, and you begin to see how they all connect and work together. That's why I find revision so very exciting and satisfying.
Do you have a sense of knowing when something is done and when it's time to stop revising?
Sometimes it's just being so sick of a piece that I can't look at it anymore. But I feel like I know when I'm almost there, and usually that's when I ask for a reader. My editor is very good about responding. She can just zero in on little areas that need a little more or less.
What are you working on now?
Well, I've got a novel I've been working on forever, a situation about a group of friends who have come together. Talk about how many stories there are! How many times have you heard that one: women gathering to talk? And then I'm also writing some stories.
How would you describe the changes in your writing over time, for example the characters you choose, their situations and their voices?
I feel they've really changed. I have felt that my work has gotten progressively darker. I think there is still light in there, but I think that I've felt safe enough or confident enough as a writer to push my characters further than I have before. I love to see and express humor in life but I'm always curious about the underbelly of it all.
Do you think you will keep returning to Fulton?
Oh yes. I'll always go back. Actually this new novel takes place very near Fulton. Right now in my mind it's set on Bald Head Island, right off the Carolina coast.
Source: Jill McCorkle and Sherry Ellis, "Creature of Habit: An Interview with Jill McCorkle," in AGNI Online, 2003, pp. 1-9.
Robert A. Beuka
In the following essay, Beuka gives a critical analysis of McCorkle's life and work.
Jill McCorkle is often hailed as a leading voice in the fiction of the "New South," a chronicler of the lives of everyday people whose strong connections to family and place help them to persevere through relationship woes and the travails of their seemingly prosaic, yet emotionally complicated lives. McCorkle's writing is characterized by her adeptness at catching the voice of the common person and her keen eye for detail as she precisely captures the trappings of working-class and middle-class life. Her work is often set in the small towns of what has come to be called the "New South," locales where generationally rooted sense of place is slowly giving way to the interchangeable landmarks of late-twentieth-century America: strip malls, chain restaurants and hotels, and faceless apartment complexes. Against this bland backdrop McCorkle maps her characters' lives, imbuing what might otherwise be considered a mundane existence with vitality and depth through her balanced use of caustic wit and compassion for her characters. Noted from the outset of her career as an accomplished novelist, McCorkle has, with the publication of two short-story sequences in recent years, also established herself as a highly skilled short-story writer.
Jill Collins McCorkle was born in Lumberton, North Carolina, on 7 July 1958 to John Wesley McCorkle Jr., a postal worker, and Melba Ann (née Collins) McCorkle, a medical secretary. After graduating from Lumberton High School in 1976, McCorkle attended the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, honing her writing skills under the tutelage of Max Steele and Louis Rubin and graduating with highest honors and a BA. in creative writing in 1980. She went on to earn an M.A. in creative writing from Hollins College in Virginia in 1981. Already a promising talent in her university years, McCorkle published her first short story, "Mrs. Lela's Fig Tree", in the Fall 1979 issue of the UNC literary magazine Cellar Door, while her second published story, "Bare Facts", won her the Jesse Rehder Prize for fiction, the most prestigious writing award offered by UNC. Subsequently, while in the writing program at Hollins, McCorkle won the university's Andrew James Purdy Prize for fiction. After graduation she spent a brief period working as an office receptionist in New York City before relocating to Florida, where she was a teacher in the Brevard County public school system in 1982–1983. For a short time she held the position of acquisitions librarian at the Florida Institute of Technology Library in Melbourne, Florida, and in 1984 she returned to Chapel Hill, taking a job as a secretary at the medical school at UNC.
During the various moves and job changes in her postcollege years, McCorkle continued writing, completing her first novel, The Cheer Leader (1984), while in New York and her second, July 7th (1984), during her years in Florida. Her return to native grounds coincided with McCorkle's explosion onto the literary scene; in 1984, the year she returned to Chapel Hill, the relatively young publishing house of Algonquin Books made the bold decision to publish both of McCorkle's "first" novels simultaneously. This unprecedented move garnered a good deal of attention for McCorkle, and the previously unknown author had suddenly arrived, to a good deal of critical acclaim. Her newfound status as successful author soon enabled McCorkle to leave behind the world of the office receptionist, and in 1986 she accepted a lectureship in creative writing at UNC. Still, her years as a receptionist were not all for naught, for while working at the UNC medical school she met her future husband, medical student Dan Shapiro. The couple relocated to Boston in 1989, and McCorkle accepted a position teaching creative writing at Tufts University. After returning for a time to North Carolina in 1989, McCorkle and her husband moved again to Boston in 1992, and she accepted the position of Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard University. McCorkle continues to live in the Boston area with her husband and two children, where she serves on the creative-writing faculty at Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont.
McCorkle already had published four highly regarded novels and was a veteran short-story writer—having placed stories in such popular magazines as Atlantic Monthly, The Southern Review, Cosmopolitan, and Seventeen—when she published her first short-story collection, Crash Diet, in 1992. A collection of eleven stories that portray the relationship troubles and consequent identity crises of a series of female protagonists, Crash Diet garnered wide critical acclaim, winning the New England Bookseller's Award in 1993. In 1992 Brad Hooper, reviewer for Booklist, praised the "remarkable sensibility" McCorkle demonstrates in the collection, and in the same year Pam Houston, reviewer for The Los Angeles Times, called Crash Diet a "generous, warm and honest book." In these eleven short stories—nine of which are told in the first person—McCorkle presents several women who are struggling but undefeated, generating a sense of empathy for each through the same balance of hard-earned humor and pathos recognizable to fans of her previous novels.
The title story, which opens Crash Diet, offers what might be an apt metaphor for the collection as a whole: the story of a perpetually overweight, recently separated woman whose dwindling sense of self-worth is measured in the lost inches of her own shrinking body, as she embarks upon a "crash diet" in the wake of her separation and discovery of the "other woman" in her husband's life. Sandra, the first-person narrator, shows the tenacity P>that characterizes so many of the women in this collection with her opening words of the story, in which she handles her husband's departure with defiant nonchalance: "Kenneth left me on a Monday morning before I'd even had the chance to mousse my hair," she announces. Ultimately a survivor, like all of the women in Crash Diet, Sandra nonetheless struggles to find herself after the dissolution of her relationship; indeed, she is literally "losing" herself over the course of the story, as her largely unconscious yet obsessional avoidance of food causes her to lose so much weight that she eventually ends up in the hospital.
The turning point of the story comes after Sandra's release from the hospital, when the selfish Kenneth comes to visit only, it turns out, to have her sign the divorce papers. As her despondent husband informs Sandra that his relationship with the other woman has ended, Sandra signs the papers in what she refers to as "the script of a fat person." Thus liberated by her own signature, Sandra shows a newfound acceptance of herself in an observation that is characteristic of McCorkle's biting sense of humor: "some things you just can't shake; part of me will always be a fat person and part of Kenneth will always be gutter slime." The story closes, appropriately enough, with a successful dinner party thrown by Sandra, whose acceptance of food is symbolic of her newfound sense of self. In both literal and figurative terms, Sandra has learned to emphasize "growth" over "loss," finding that what remains at the end of her dissolved relationship is nothing less than herself.
The thematic concerns of "Crash Diet" resurface in several other stories as McCorkle shapes the collection around the dominant, recurring theme of women surviving troubles with men. "Man Watcher" is a loosely plotted tale that chronicles the observations of the narrator, a divorced woman named Lucinda, on the various types of men she sees. Lucinda has so honed her precise—perhaps embittered—powers of observation that she proposes to write a "book about it all, all the different types of the species. You know it would sort of be like Audubon's bird book. I'd call it Male Homo Sapiens: What You Need to Know to Identify Different Breeds."
This categorizing approach also informs the stories "First Union Blues" and "Comparison Shopping", two more first-person narratives that find their protagonists immersed in unsatisfying relationships, longing for more passionate relationships from the past while facing an unrewarding present and uncertain future. In each of these stories McCorkle uses diametrically opposed male characters (the virile, romantic, reckless man of the past versus the conventionally successful, staid, unappealing man of the present) as foils to help express her narrator's longings and insecurities. Each of these tales also ends with a moment of sudden affirmation, as McCorkle's heroines offer variations on the concluding declaration of Maureen Dummer, narrator of "First Union Blues", who—after facing her relationship crises and determining to survive on her own—concludes simply, "I want to live."
The majority of the stories in this collection are also united by McCorkle's precisely realistic treatment of the New South landscape. Typically setting her tales in small southern towns, like that of her native Lumberton, where the once time-honored sense of community identity is rapidly eroding, McCorkle explores the emotional crises of her female protagonists against the background of what is becoming an indistinguishable and often alienating terrain. Amid denizens of condo "communities" and interchangeable subdivisions, McCorkle's heroines often struggle in discovering their own identity within a homogeneous environment.
In this regard the reader senses the irony in statements such as Maureen's in "First Union Blues": "before I knew it, I was … living in a condo with a wreath on every wall and a big hooked rug that I bought at the outlet mall over near the airport. That place has got everything you might want and then some. Everything." When McCorkle's narrators work toward defining themselves against such an uninspiring backdrop, the effort is not always successful. As Norlinda, the narrator of "Comparison Shopping", comments, noting the similarity of behavior and identity in her subdivision, "That's how it is here in Windhaven Estates; we all do the same things…. I'm starting to get the hang of it now, though it hasn't been easy."
McCorkle's precise brand of realism, most prominently featured in her attention to the details of the contemporary New South landscape, puts her in the company of such other masters of contemporary realism as Randall Jarrell and Bobbie Ann Mason. For many critics this facet of McCorkle's writing is what makes her stories so effective. Jack Butler, for example, in his 1992 review of Crash Diet in The New York Times, praised McCorkle's convincing, acute depiction of the New South while noting the centrality of place in the struggles of McCorkle's characters: "It is their milieu that these women seek to escape. Jill McCorkle renders it brilliantly, again and again delivering the shock of recognition. 'That's just how it is,' readers across the country will say to themselves in repeated delight." Others disagree, arguing that McCorkle's attention to the minutiae of contemporary existence can at times be overwhelming, undercutting the force of the story itself. Even Butler, in the same review, goes on to argue that the "repetition of similar locales and tacky detail becomes numbing after a time. It begins to seem an easy trick, relied on too often. Sometimes you feel as though you were in Wal Mart, not just enjoying a wickedly comic vision of the place."
Ultimately, however, McCorkle's close scrutiny of the trappings of late-twentieth-century existence serves as more than a means toward exhibiting her keen sense of humor—though in a fictional world where residents live on subdivision streets named after brands of liquor, and "Mr. Coffee" machines become symbols of life's greater concerns, her stories certainly accomplish that aim. The bulk of the stories here and in her subsequent collection, Final Vinyl Days (1998), demonstrate that McCorkle is profoundly concerned with the dynamics of place. Particularly for an author who grew up in a small, traditional southern town, the evolution of the small-town southern landscape in recent decades poses not only physical, but also emotional and psychological concerns. And while McCorkle traced the suburbanization of the small-town South in her 1990 novel, Ferris Beach, in her short fiction the landscapes of the past are for the most part already gone.
McCorkle acknowledged the importance of geography to her work in a personal interview in 1999, noting that the "sense of place" exhibited in her stories is the primary autobiographical element she sees in her fiction as a whole. Her childhood in Lumberton coincided with a profound change in the landscape of the small-town South, a period the author refers to as a "time of transition." Feeling that she grew up on the "cusp between the Old South and the New South," McCorkle sees the yearning for connection to past landscapes as a factor in much of her fiction. Indeed, as she wrote in her essay "Secret Places", included in the volume A Place Called Home: Twenty Writing Women Remember (1996), this need to inhabit vanished but remembered landscapes is a central facet of her fictional endeavor to begin with: "My wish would be that every scene from our lives is preserved on a neat little stage and all we have to do is step in," the author writes, concluding that her own indelible connection to the landscape of her youth is what fuels much of her writing: "It's not the place so much as what I have taken away from it; the images and smells and sounds. There is a feeling, like having a secret; it's powerful and wonderful and it's what keeps people and places alive. It's why people have the urge to go back and why they tell stories."
McCorkle's keen interest in capturing the dynamics of landscape and creating a sense of place illuminate a number of stories in Crash Diet, none more so than the haunting "Migration of the Love Bugs", a story that uses the seemingly aimless, never ending migratory patterns of the southern insect known as the "love bug" as a metaphor for the plight of the narrator, Alice, a woman who finds herself dislocated from her home of forty years, an apartment near Boston Common, and now living in what she describes as a "tin can" of a mobile home in a Florida retirement village. While her husband, Frank, remains incredulous to her sense of longing for the home they have left behind (he thinks of their new setting, where every mobile home has a "view of the driving range," as the Promised Land), Alice sees things differently: "I was thinking that if this was the Promised Land, Moses sure dealt me a bad hand," she muses. McCorkle credits the inspiration for this story to personal experience, noting that during her first period in Boston, when she and her husband lived off Boston Common, she had further occasion to reflect on the importance of home and a sense of place. For though the locales are reversed, again in "Migration of the Love Bugs", the author contrasts a richly depicted vision of the power of home with the desultory experience of life in a prefabricated landscape.
If such concerns over the alienating nature of the contemporary landscape, coupled with the problematic romantic relationships of her protagonists and their often humorous sense of perseverance, are the characteristics that define the typical story in Crash Diet, worth noting as well are those stories in which McCorkle breaks out of this mold. Two such efforts are the first-person narratives "Words Gone Bad" and "Waiting for Hard Times to End"; in each of these stories McCorkle experiments with her heroines' voices, offering narrators who stand in counterpoint to the majority of others in the collection.
In "Words Gone Bad" McCorkle tells the story of Mary, an aging African American janitor at a southern university whose dissatisfaction with the pace of social reform, and larger sense of spiritual longing, are captured in the image of the wasted words she must erase daily from the classroom blackboards. After contrasting the harsh realities of her own life with the idealism and dignity represented by the resonant words and phrases of the Civil Rights movement, McCorkle's narrator concludes that the hollowness of words themselves is tied to the larger social dilemma she faces: "there's always more words on the board, words and words and more words in their dusty slanted lines of white and yellow, erasers filled with words gone old or bad or both." Through Mary, McCorkle offers another angle of vision—her most explicitly political in the collection—on life in the New South.
"Waiting for Hard Times to End" is told by Bunny, an adolescent girl whose own coming-of-age drama is played out against her interest in the affairs of her sister, Rhonda, whom she idolizes. Rhonda has left home and, unbeknownst to the naive Bunny, is leading an increasingly desperate life of bad jobs and abusive relationships, one that will eventually end with her murder in a sleazy hotel. Enamored of what she imagines to be her sister's "glamorous" lifestyle, Bunny daily awaits the mail for another postcard from Rhonda describing her most recent adventures.
Perfectly capturing Bunny's naiveté, McCorkle builds the dramatic irony of the story, creating empathy for her narrator while suggesting the inevitability of both Rhonda's demise and Bunny's painful but necessary emergence into self-awareness and womanhood. Eventually coming to understand the painful reality behind the facade of her sister's words, Bunny determines at the end of the story to forge her own path, in a closing affirmation that is one of the most honest in the collection. Like "Words Gone Bad", "Waiting for Hard Times to End" questions the veracity of language itself, a telling gesture in a collection of primarily first-person narratives. With these two stories McCorkle further suggests the vulnerability that lies behind the spunky facade of the majority of her narrators.
Despite her success with the first-person form, perhaps the strongest stories in this collection are the two third-person narratives, "Gold Mine" and "Departures". In each of these moving, lyrical stories, one can sense the liberating influence of the third-person perspective: freed from the necessity of creating another narrative voice, McCorkle is able to imbue her characters with a newfound depth, using the third-person form to maximum effect in portraying the sort of vulnerability that is only hinted at in the first-person narratives of the collection.
"Gold Mine" tells the story of Ruthie Kates, a mother of two who, along with her now-estranged husband, Jim, had years ago opened and lovingly restored an old motel along the main highway of a seaside town in South Carolina. The inevitable ruin of this endeavor is foretold in the first line of the story: "The day the interstate opened was the day Highway 301 and Petrie, South Carolina, died." Another rumination on the parallels between place and experience, this story offers the now nearly defunct motel as a symbol of the dissolution of the romantic relationship between Ruthie and Jim. For just as Ruthie's Goodnight Inn has been replaced by one of the generic chain hotels that have sprouted up along the new interstate, I-95, Ruthie herself has been replaced by a younger woman named Barbara: "Barbara is like I-95. She is fast and lively and young, and Ruthie is 301, miles of tread stains and no longer the place to go."
McCorkle shapes the narrative as a series of recollections Ruthie experiences over the course of a single afternoon, as she stands watch over her two young children by the pool of the nearly abandoned hotel. Contrasting the youthful optimism that had Ruthie and Jim believing their hotel—and their relationship—to be a "gold mine" with the painful experience of abandonment, McCorkle paves the way for the return of Jim that evening, a moment captured in breathtaking imagery that belies the fact that Ruthie's optimism remains tempered by pain. The use of third-person mode in this story allows McCorkle to avoid the sometimes cloying tendency in her first-person narratives toward strident self-affirmations, allowing her to create instead a tale that is at once personal and universal. As reviewer Pam Houston notes, "Taking the biggest risk in the book, 'Gold Mine' allows the abandoned Ruthie to find her strength not through determination and independence, but through acceptance and forgiveness."
Certainly the most widely praised story in Crash Diet is "Departures", an elegiac story of an aging woman's ongoing attempt to come to terms with her husband's death. Three years after the passing of her husband, Walter, Anna Craven continues to mourn his departure, attempting to stave off loneliness by spending the majority of her time in crowded shopping malls and airports, "any place where she can be surrounded by people without having to interact with any of them." The story shifts between scenes of Anna alone in crowed places, where she takes solace in the people who surround her, to passages that find her recalling moments of her life with Walter. Anna's recurring recollection of youthful summers at a seaside cottage with Walter and their growing family provides a yearning, lyrical counterpoint to her life now, which despite her tendency to immerse herself in crowds, is defined by her isolation.
Critical reaction to "Departures" has been overwhelmingly positive, with the majority of reviewers noting this story as the finest one in the collection. Characteristic of the critical response is the assessment of Greg Johnson, who reviewed the story for The Georgia Review in 1992. Johnson sees the story as a turning point of sorts for McCorkle as a short-story writer: "Fully and compassionately imagined, 'Departures' has the force of a miniature novel, and it suggests the author's possible development out of her more facile and superficial first-person approach." Indeed, McCorkle herself has noted "Departures" as one of her favorite stories of the collection, saying that it marked a significant change for her as a writer. With its depth of emotion, its nuanced narrative voice, and its sophisticated yet understated play with narrative time frames and recurring imagery, this story does suggest McCorkle's development as a short-story writer, presaging in both its themes and its technique stories that appear in her next story collection, Final Vinyl Days.
While one can certainly find thematic links between Crash Diet and McCorkle's 1998 collection, Final Vinyl Days, the latter collection also reveals new directions in both form and content, developments related to changes in McCorkle's life in the intervening years. In 1992, the year Crash Diet was published, the author and her husband again relocated to Boston, and McCorkle left behind the southern milieu that featured so prominently in many of her earlier stories. Tending to a growing family while continuing her career in the classroom, McCorkle nonetheless in these years saw her writing career flourish; in 1993 she received the New England Booksellers' Association award for her body of work, while in 1996 her novel Carolina Moon was published to wide critical acclaim. Final Vinyl Days cemented her reputation as a short-story writer. This collection of nine stories reveals a maturing artist whose increasing mastery of the short-story form is paralleled by a heightened thematic interest in mortality, vulnerability, and the uncertainty of life.
If the title story of her previous collection suggests the dominant themes of Crash Diet as a whole, much the same can be said of the title story of Final Vinyl Days. This first-person narrative is told by a post-collegiate record store employee and college-town hanger-on—one of three male protagonists in the collection—who laments the passing of what he considers the golden age of rock and roll, as evidenced by the advent of the compact disc and the increasing irrelevance of his store and his role—seller of "classic" used vinyl albums. The story is, among other things, a miniature compendium of rock and roll history, as the narrator's mounting identity crisis and increasing string of unsatisfactory one-night stands are set to a soundtrack of classic rock references to Roy Orbison, The Beatles, and The Byrds. This characteristic alone makes the story emblematic of the collection as a whole, in that all of the stories in Final Vinyl Days make references to popular songs, a technique that suggests McCorkle's shaping of the collection—consciously or otherwise—in the form of a record album.
McCorkle's recurring musical references are more than a gimmicky narrative trick, however; in "Final Vinyl Days" the author makes the link between the pop music of bygone days and her protagonist's growing awareness of his mortality and the passing of time, as well as his mounting sense of alienation from the world in which he lives. And in this sense, "Final Vinyl Days" uses the musical metaphor in a way that reverberates throughout the collection, as the majority of the stories here feature characters who, often in reaction to the loss of a loved one, confront the uncertainty of a finite existence in an often confounding world. For the narrator of "Final Vinyl Days", this uncertainty takes the form of his stubborn rejection of everything new in the music world. Shaken by the deaths of his musical idols Marvin Gaye and Del Shannon, the narrator redoubles his efforts to live his life in the past; at the close of the story he fantasizes about his college sweetheart and their "perfect 1970 romance," even as he relates his increasing penchant for one-night stands with a "series of younger and younger women," who leave a "mountain of CD covers dumped on my floor." With this telling final image, McCorkle suggests her narrator's emotional imprisonment, and this theme is one that recurs in the stories that follow "Final Vinyl Days" in the collection.
A particularly noteworthy story is "A Blinking, Spinning, Breathtaking World", which chronicles a recently divorced young mother's emotional breakdown. In the face of an impending snowstorm, the protagonist, Charlotte, takes her son to an indoor amusement/theme park called Wonderland, and both the threatening winter weather and the carnivalesque setting of the action become metaphors for Charlotte's emotional turmoil. Though at one point Charlotte had been on the point of "begging" her husband to "start all over," even willing to "pretend that he had never cheated on her," by the end of the story it becomes apparent that Charlotte's sense of isolation is as all-encompassing as it is debilitating. After suffering a panic attack at the amusement park, Charlotte hurries her son back to their car, and McCorkle closes the story by chronicling Charlotte's thoughts in the car, using the carnival metaphor once again to emphasize the uncertainty that leaves her entrapped: "There was no magic potion; no incantation to make the world stop blinking, stop spinning. She could only hope that her body would keep moving—slow step by slow step—to the lines for the rest of the breathtaking rides. But for now, she was scared frozen, scared to death."
The cold, haunting closing of this story signals a larger change of perspective in the collection as a whole; for while in Crash Diet McCorkle chose to conclude almost all of the stories with declarations of defiant, optimistic perseverance, in Final Vinyl Days the prevailing tone is less self-assured, more cognizant of the fragility of life. Part of this shift had to do with her own change of perspective; in particular, McCorkle has noted that the responsibilities of motherhood influenced her writerly perspective. Less inclined to identify with the unfettered optimism of some of her earlier protagonists, McCorkle notes that in the years preceding Final Vinyl Days she found herself becoming increasingly interested in offering more nuanced portrayals of vulnerable characters and their relationships. This change in perspective can be seen in such efforts as "Last Request" and "Dysfunction 101", two stories whose female characters, even as adults, suffer emotionally from their parents' legacies of infidelity and abandonment. While both protagonists vow to go on with their lives, the prevailing mood at the close of both of these stories is one of acceptance rather than defiant survival, a feeling captured by the narrator of "Dysfunction 101": "First, you recognize what was wrong … and then you accept it. This does not mean that you agree with it, just that you say, yes, that is what happened. And then you walk off and leave it there; it is not your mess to clean up."
Despite McCorkle's more reflective tone in Final Vinyl Days, the collection as a whole is still spiked by the author's trademark wit, and several stories recall the sensibility of Crash Diet. Among these is "Paradise", the opening story of the collection, which tells the story of the blossoming romance between a couple named Adam and Eve. Setting their initial meeting at the wedding of mutual friends in smalltown North Carolina, McCorkle uses her keen eye for kitschy detail in constructing a hilariously precise rendering of the trappings of a southern wedding. The couple manage to escape this dubious Eden and—uncharacteristically for McCorkle—the story's end finds them presumably embarked on a happy life together.
Another platform for McCorkle's biting humor can be found in "Your Husband is Cheating On Us", an imaginative piece structured as a monologue from a spurned mistress directed toward her lover's wife. Now that a third woman has entered the picture, the mistress—who refers to herself as "Big Foot"—senses a sisterhood of sorts with the wife and counsels her on what she should do about her philandering husband. After deriding the new, second mistress ("she works at Blockbuster Video and wears way too much eye makeup"), Big Foot concludes, "Tell him he better shape his butt up or you are out of here, sister. Make him sweat." Although perhaps not the most successful story in the collection, "Your Husband is Cheating On Us" manages to generate an idiosyncratic sense of compassion for the brassy Big Foot and her would-be friend.
But the most adventurous stories in the collection—and ultimately the most powerful—are those in which McCorkle confronts the pain of the loss of loved ones, a recurring theme in Final Vinyl Days that resonates with the author's life experience. In the years that followed the publication of her previous story collection she saw the passing of several relatives and old family friends. The author notes the dislocating effect of this kind of loss, explaining that she found herself "suddenly in a place in life where a lot of those people weren't around anymore." Particularly painful was the loss of her father, and McCorkle says that the grief she experienced at his passing found its way into her subsequent fictional work.
"Life Prerecorded", one of the finest stories in the collection, centers on the emotional struggles of a young mother-to-be whose anxiety over impending childbirth manifests itself in a series of dreams she has about now-departed loved ones. Autobiographical in nature—the author describes it as the story in the collection "closest to me"—"Life Prerecorded" recalls in both its complex structure and its often elegiac tone the gem of her first collection, "Departures". Evidencing McCorkle's increasing confidence with narrative structure, the story shifts time frames and moods rapidly, in a narrative rhythm that mirrors the emotional state of its narrator, who describes her feelings as "discombobulated."
Yet, despite her frenetic play with narrative structure, McCorkle manages to imbue the story with a lyrical tone, as the narrator's recurring memories of loved ones from her past—particularly her now-departed grandmother-coupled with her newfound friendship with an elderly widower from her apartment building, mark the story as another concerned with the importance of the past and her characters' connections to it. And while the narrator's imagined conversations with her grandmother and conjured images of her neighbor's wife may be illusions, they serve to quell her emotional turmoil, and with that perhaps McCorkle suggests that these are the necessary illusions. "What we don't know is enormous," the narrator at one point opines, a fitting comment in a story that revolves around the mystery of love and loss and the yearning for permanence.
The final two stories in the collection share some of the thematic concerns of "Life Prerecorded". The first of these, "It's a Funeral! RSVP", stands as the collection's most straightforward attempt to confront the pain and mystery of death. The story of a woman who plans "early funerals," celebrations of life for those who are about to die, "It's a Funeral" plays a cathartic role in a collection haunted throughout by the loss of loved ones. While some townspeople have taken to referring to the protagonist derisively as the "Mistress of Death," she sees her funeral catering business differently, considering the parties she throws to be offering a model of hope for the living as well as the dying. In a passage that recalls McCorkle's own life experiences in the 1990s, the narrator offers the rationale behind her new business: "I was about to turn forty and already many of my very favorite people were dead. I had children, and I wanted them to grow up with a clear vision of hope. A sense of nature and art and all that has walked this earth before them." And this adventurous story, part linear narrative and part philosophical essay, works toward establishing such a vision of hope, providing a redemptive, healing moment in the collection.
The final story, "The Anatomy of Man", extends McCorkle's philosophical excursion, closing the collection on an experimental, spiritually questing note. This inventive third-person narrative is focalized through the perceptions of a young pastor who, after closing up his church for the night, immerses himself in the baptismal pool, in what has become a ritualistic event for him. The narrative takes the form of an interior monologue, as the pastor attempts to come to grips with his spiritual uncertainty, frustrated sexuality, and longing for a renewed sense of purpose in life. Finding the greatest solace in memories of his deceased great-uncle, a man whose visionary qualities had him eventually branded insane and sent to an institution, the pastor works through these memories in an effort to understand his own fading spiritual vision. As he contemplates leaving the church, a voice comes from the darkness, advising the pastor to "Do things…. Keep the doors open." Fittingly, McCorkle's deus ex machina, appearing on the last page of the collection, does not provide neat closure for this story or for the collection, instead emphasizing openness.
In his 1990 review for the Atlanta Journal of McCorkle's novel Ferris Beach (1990), critic S. Keith Graham remarked that by that point, six years after her stunning literary debut, "everyone this side of Richmond recognizes Ms. McCorkle as one of the best in the new generation of Southern writers." After the success of Ferris Beach, with not only another novel but also two compelling short-story sequences to her credit since that time, Jill McCorkle's literary reputation has spread. A wickedly funny writer who has become more than a humorist, and a precise chronicler of the landscape of the New South whose finest work nevertheless easily transcends regional labels, McCorkle has proven herself to be nothing less than a first-rate novelist and short-story writer. Currently, McCorkle is working on a novel and another short-story collection, which is sure to be good news for fans of McCorkle's increasingly inventive and searching brand of realism.
Source: Robert A. Beuka, "Jill McCorkle," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 234, American Short-Story Writers Since World War II, Third Series, edited by Patrick Meanor and Richard E. Lee, The Gale Group, 2001, pp. 186-196.
Manning, Jo, Review of Creatures of Habit, in Library Journal, Vol. 126, No. 12, July 2001, p. 128.
McCorkle, Jill, "Fish," in Creatures of Habit, Algonquin Books, 2001, pp. 227-40.
Review of Creatures of Habit, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 248, No. 37, September 10, 2001, p. 58.
Wilkinson, Joanne, Review of Creatures of Habit, in Booklist, Vol. 97, No. 21, July 2001, p. 1982.
Williams, Susan Millar, "Small Town Girls," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 19, No. 1, October 2001, p. 16.
Atherton, Lewis Eldon, Main Street on the Middle Border, Indiana University Press, 1954.
Atherton examines the life and death of small towns in the Midwest from 1865 to 1950.
Bennett, Barbara, Understanding Jill McCorkle, Understanding Contemporary American Literature series, University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
Bennett analyzes McCorkle's novels and short stories to date, including a brief overview of her life.
Spielman, David G, and William W. Starr, Southern Writers, University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Spielman photographed seventy-two Southern authors in the spaces where they create their stories. The text is written by Starr.
Zinsser, William, How to Write a Memoir, HarperAudio, 1999, 1 cassette.
Zinsser explains what makes a good memoir, how to decide what to write about, and more, citing examples from famous memoir writers such as Eudora Welty and Frank McCourt.
FISH . Inherent in fish symbolism is the sacred power of the abyss, the reciprocities of life and death. Paleolithic fish figurines have been found with the spiral of creativity carved on one side and the labyrinth of death on the other, evincing the spiritual world of early humankind in which fish represented propagating and perishing, killing and consuming, life renewed and sustained.
In the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world, fish were associated with the great goddesses, archetypal images of femininity, love, and fertility. Astarte was worshiped in the form of a fish; Atargatis named her son Ichthys, Sacred Fish. In ancient Greece, Rome, and Scandinavia, the goddesses Aphrodite, Venus, and Frigg were assimilated to fish, and on Friday, the day sacred to them, fish were eaten as a way of participating in their fecundity. In many parts of the world—India, Greenland, Samoa, and Brazil—virgins were thought to be made pregnant by the gift of a fish, while a "fishing dance" was a common fertility rite in the women's societies of Africa. The dual nature of the symbol was manifested, and fish were regarded as unclean, wherever the goddess was characterized as libidinous and devouring. Fish gods were venerated as creators and vivifiers among Sumero-Semitic peoples and represented phallic power. An Assyrian seal of about 700 bce depicts "Fish Gods Fertilizing the Tree of Life." Babylonian seals bear the image of a great fish with a vase from which fish stream.
A ubiquitous food in much of the world, fish are a universal motif of plenty. They are an emblem of abundance and good augury on Buddhist altars and are cited as one of the five boons in the Tantric text Vāmācāris.
At ritual meals in the temples of Babylon, fish was the sacred food of the priests. In Judaism, fish was regarded as the food of the blessed in paradise and was eaten at the Sabbath meal. The old Jewish Passover was in the month of Adar, the Fish, and the traditional symbol of the national restoration that is to come with the advent of the Messiah is the great fish on which the righteous will feast. Sabbath utensils and the chalice of benediction are often decorated with images of fish.
Sacred fish occur in Syrian and Iranian myths. Throughout the dynastic period in Egypt, they were regarded as the manifestation or abode of a god. Hapi, father of the gods, was "Lord of the Fishes," and a fish denoted the phallus of the dismembered god Osiris. An attribute of the sea god Poseidon (or Neptune), fish were associated with lunar power, and when represented with an ax, as in Crete, designated both lunar and solar power. Pisces, the twelfth sign of the Zodiac, is a pair of parallel fishes pointing in opposite directions, symbolizing spiritual and temporal power, the upper and lower worlds, past and future, involution and evolution, the ending of one cycle and the beginning of another. A pair of fishes on Chinese Bronze Age vessels signifies creative power. The Japanese believed that the world was supported by a mighty fish. Among the primitive societies of Oceania, Africa, and North and South America, fish were sacred totemic figures, emblematic of the power of the clan. Peruvian Indians believed that the original fish had engendered all others; they worshiped the species that was caught in the greatest numbers. Sea gods riding on a fish signified freedom; shown on the footprint of the Buddha, a fish meant emancipation from attachment and desire.
A corollary of the fish as blessing is its assimilation to a savior. The alchemical sign for Salvator mundi is a fish. The Hindu god Viṣṇu, transformed into a fish by Brahma, recovered the Vedas from the flood, saved humankind, and started a new race. Christ was symbolized by the fish, as seen in carved inscriptions in the catacombs of Rome; in Greek, the initial letters of "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior" form the Greek word ichthus ("fish"). The depiction of Jesus standing in water confirms the metaphor of a fish drawn from the deep to bring salvation to humanity. The feeding of the multitude by the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes is the prototype of the Eucharist; the fish, like the bread, symbolizes the body of the Lord. The concept of Christ as both sacrificed and sacrificer is inherent in the Mass. Three fish with one head, or three intertwined fish—found in the iconography of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and Persia, and even down to modern times—is a universal symbol for unity in trinity, and came to represent Christian baptism. Christ's disciples and the newly baptized were denoted by the sign of a fish, and a neophyte in fish garb is depicted on early Christian lamps. In Christian mortuary painting, on pagan sarcophagi, and in representations of Chinese feasts of the dead, fish relate to resurrection and regeneration.
The experience of entering the belly of a whale or big fish, as in the Jonah story, is equated to a religious idea that informed the initiatory mysteries and rituals of death and of rebirth through newfound wisdom. Variants of this transition symbol are found worldwide, from the initiation rites of Oceania, West Africa, Lapland, and Finland to the North American Indian tale of Hiawatha, who was swallowed by the King of Fishes.
Fishing symbolizes both looking for souls and looking into the soul, that is, drawing the treasure of wisdom from the sea of the unknown. The Babylonians considered the sea the source of wisdom, and a mystic fisherman called "Warden of the Fish" is represented on a seal of the second millennium bce. The mythical hero Ea-Oannes, half man, half fish, rose from the waters to bring culture and wisdom to mankind. The figure evolved into a fish god, Lord of the Deeps, whose priests wore fish skins and a fish headdress and whose image was ultimately transmuted into the miter of Christian bishops. The name Orpheus derives from a term for "fish," and one of the figures on an Orphic sacramental bowl of the third or fourth century bce shows Orpheus as a fisher of men, with a fish and pole at his feet. The Celtic god Nodon was a fisher-god, and the Welsh god Bran the Blessed was called "Fisher of Men." His counterpart is the Grail King whom Parsifal found fishing as he waited for his deliverer. According to Augustine, Christ's exhortation "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" implied that the world is a sea of fish to be converted. For the tenth-century Ṣūfī mystic Niffari, the sea of spiritual experience through which the mystic passes on his journey to God is full of strange and frightening fish.
Many forms of sea life embody specific religious symbols. The dolphin was regarded as a divine intermediary between the upper and lower worlds; as a guide to departed souls, he was depicted on Greek vases bearing warriors to the Isles of the Blest. The dolphin as psychopomp, or guide of the souls of the dead, is also represented in Christian art. The octupus was a favorite motif in the ceramic arts of ancient Crete, allied to the spiritual in symbolizing the mystic center and the unfolding of creation. In the Celtic legend of Finn, the hero eats the Salmon of Wisdom, which endows him with the foreknowledge of the gods. The European Stella Maris, or starfish, is a symbol of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit.
Baum, Julius. "Symbolic Representations of the Eucharist." In The Mysteries, vol. 2 of Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, edited by Joseph Campbell. New York, 1956. A close analysis of the symbolic acts of Christ represented in the rite of the Eucharist, based on fish iconography on sarcophagi and artifacts in sacramental chapels.
Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God, vol. 4, Creative Mythology, New York, 1968. A survey of the mystic fisherman symbolism in Orphic, Babylonian, and Christian artifacts, correlating the symbols of the mystagogue, Orpheus the Fisherman, and the Fisher King of the Grail legend.
Lengyel, Lancelot. Le secret des Celtes. Paris, 1969. The fish as symbol of wisdom in the Celtic legend of the hero Finn and his acquisition of supernatural knowledge by consuming the Salmon of Wisdom.
Neumann, Erich. The Origins and History of Consciousness. New York, 1954. Includes an account of the predominance of female deities in early fish cults and of culture heroes that rise from the waters, half fish, half man, to bring revelation and wisdom to humankind.
Zimmer, Heinrich. Philosophies of India (1951). Edited by Joseph Campbell. Reprint, Princeton, 1969. In his summary of the sastra of the Science of Wealth, the author examines the Indian doctrine of Matsyanyāya, or the law of the fishes, in which fish symbolize the breeding force of the sea—life abundant, self-sustaining, and self-consuming.
Baird, Merrily. "Land and Sea Animals." In Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design. New York, 2001.
Lawrence, Raymond J., Jr. "The Fish: A Lost Symbol of Sexual Liberation?" Journal of Religion and Health 30 (Winter 1991): 311–319.
Slater, Candace. Dance of the Dolphin: Transformation and Disenchantment in the Amazonian Imagination. Chicago, 1994.
Ann Dunnigan (1987)
fish (in zoology)
fish, limbless aquatic vertebrate animal with fins and internal gills. Traditionally the living fish have been divided into three class: the primitive jawless fishes, or Agnatha; the cartilaginous (sharklike) fishes, or Chondrichthyes; and the bony fishes, or Osteichthyes. These groups, although quite different from one another anatomically, have certain common features related to their common evolutionary origins or to their aquatic way of life. Fish were the earliest vertebrates and presumably evolved from a group of aquatic lower chordates (see Chordata); the terrestrial vertebrates evolved from fishes. More recent cladistic taxonomies, relying on evolutionary relationships determined through DNA studies, group the living fish into five classes, dividing the jawless fishes into Myxini (hagfish) and Petromyzontida (lampreys) and the bony fishes into Actinopterygii (ray-finned fish) and Sacropterygii (lobe-finned fish).
There are some 28,000 living species of fish, the vast majority of which are bony fishes. They range in size from the .31-in. (7.9-mm) Paedocypris that lives in tropical swamps in Sumatra to the 45-ft (14-m) whale shark. Many are brightly colored, and many have shapes and patterns that serve as camouflage. They are found in all marine, fresh, and brackish waters throughout the world and at all depths. Members of different species of fish tolerate water temperatures ranging from freezing to over 100°F (38°C). Most are confined either to saltwater or to freshwater, but some are physiologically adapted to moving from one to the other. A number of fishes that are born in freshwater spend their adult lives in the ocean, returning to their birthplace to spawn; the reverse of this migration occurs in some fishes born in the ocean. Many fishes stay in tightly organized groups, called schools; others are solitary and congregate only for feeding and spawning. Fish may be carnivorous, herbivorous, or omnivorous. Some fish are scavengers on lake or ocean bottoms. Fish are a major source of human food as well as of oil, fertilizer, and feed for domestic animals (see fishing).
A number of aquatic invertebrate animals and groups have common names that include the term fish (for example, crayfish and shellfish), but these do not resemble and are not related to true fishes. Furthermore, there are members of the terrestrial vertebrate classes, such as whales and sea snakes, that have adopted an aquatic way of life; these may superficially resemble fishes and are sometimes erroneously called fishes, but they are air-breathers, and their anatomical structure reveals their relationship to land animals.
Characteristic Anatomical Features
A typical fish is torpedo-shaped, with a head containing a brain and sensory organs, a trunk with a muscular wall surrounding a cavity containing the internal organs, and a muscular post-anal tail. Most fish propel themselves through the water by weaving movements of their bodies and control their direction by means of the fins. All have skins covered with slimy glandular secretions that decrease friction with the water; in addition, nearly all have scales, which together with the secretions form a nearly waterproof coating. All fishes have a lateral line system of sensory organs for detecting pressure changes in the water. All have water-breathing organs called gills located in passages leading from the throat, or pharynx, to the exterior; a few fishes also have air-breathing lungs as an additional means of respiration. In all but the most primitive class, the gill passages are supported by skeletal structures called gill arches. Plankton-feeding fish have structures called gill rakers attached to the gill arches; these strain minute organisms from the water as it passes out of the pharynx. Fish breathe by taking water into the mouth and forcing it out through the gill passages; as the water passes over the thin-walled gills, dissolved oxygen diffuses into the gill capillaries and carbon dioxide diffuses out. The circulatory system is closed, and the heart is two-chambered; the blood is red. With few exceptions, fish are cold-blooded; that is, they cannot regulate their body temperature, which is the same as that of the environment.
Methods of reproduction are varied. Sharks have internal fertilization, and most give birth to live young. Those that lay eggs produce large ones with tough shells. Since embryonic development is well-protected in these fish, they produce a relatively small number of young, only seven or eight at a time in some species. A few of the bony fishes, including some aquarium species, are live bearers, but most lay small, unprotected eggs that are fertilized after deposition in water. In most marine species the eggs float freely in the currents, where they are eaten by other animals. An enormous number of eggs is therefore necessary to ensure the maturation of a few; in many species a female produces as many as 5 million eggs in one spawn. The eggs of most marine fishes contain oil droplets that buoy them up, while those of most freshwater fishes are heavy, with sticky surfaces that adhere to objects in the water. Most freshwater species build nests for the protection of the eggs, and in some the adults guard the nests.
Types of Fish
The Jawless Fishes
These primitive fishes lack jaws and the paired pelvic and pectoral fins characteristic of more advanced fishes. The two living types are the bloodsucking lampreys and the scavenging hagfishes. Fishes of the extinct class Placodermi, the armored fishes, were the first vertebrates to develop jaws and paired fins. These fish had bony skeletons and were covered with bony armor.
The Cartilaginous Fishes
The cartilaginous fish (sharks, rays, and chimaeras) are distinguished from the bony fish by their cartilage skeletons, by the absence of either a swim bladder or lungs, by the construction of their tail fins, and by the absence in most of a gill covering, or operculum. The skin of members of this group is covered with imbedded toothlike structures called denticles, giving it a rough, sandpapery quality. Sharks are almost exclusively marine in distribution.
The Bony Fishes
The bony fishes are distinguished from other living fishes by their bone skeletons and by the presence of either a swim bladder (which functions as a float) or, in a few fishes, lungs. The bony fishes are divided into two subclasses, the lobe-finned (or fleshy-finned) fish and the ray-finned fish. The latter group includes over 95% of all living fish species.
The earliest bony fishes were fleshy-finned; they gave rise to the amphibians (the first terrestrial vertebrates, or tetrapods). The only surviving fleshy-finned fishes are the lungfishes and coelacanths (see lobefin). These fishes retain some of the traits of ancestral bony fishes: fleshy fins with supporting bones (precursors of the limbs of land vertebrates), internal nostrils, and lungs.
Ray-finned fishes, now predominant in both fresh and marine waters, represent an advanced adaptation of the bony fishes to strictly aquatic conditions; they are the most highly successful and diverse of the fishes. In nearly all of these fishes the lung has evolved into a hydrostatic organ, the swim bladder. The fins in this group consist of a web of skin supported by horny rays. Each ray is moved by a set of muscles, giving the fin great flexibility. Most ray-finned fish have overlapping scales made of very thin layers of bone. Their skeletal structure is light but strong and most have excellent vision.
See W. S. Hoar and D. J. Randall, Fish Physiology (6 vol., 1969–71); J. E. Webb et al. ed., Guide to Living Fishes (1981); J. A. Long, The Rise of Fishes (2d ed., 2010).
fish1 / fish/ • n. (pl. same or fish·es ) a limbless cold-blooded vertebrate animal with gills and fins and living wholly in water: the sea is thick with fish. ∎ the flesh of such animals as food: hot crab appetizers stuffed with fish. ∎ (the Fish or Fishes) the zodiacal sign or constellation Pisces. ∎ used in names of invertebrate animals living wholly in water, e.g., cuttlefish, shellfish, jellyfish. ∎ inf. a person who is strange in a specified way: he is generally thought to be a bit of a cold fish. ∎ inf. a torpedo. • v. [intr.] catch or try to catch fish, typically by using a net or hook and line: he was fishing for bluefish I've told the girls we've gone fishing. ∎ [tr.] catch or try to catch fish in (a particular body of water): they did fish the mountain streams when game grew scarce. ∎ search, typically by groping or feeling for something concealed: he fished for his registration certificate and held it up to the policeman's flashlight. ∎ try subtly or deviously to elicit a response or some information from someone: I was not fishing for compliments. ∎ [tr.] (fish something out) pull or take something out of water or a container: the body of a woman had been fished out of the river. PHRASES: a big fish an important or influential person: he became a big fish in the world of politics. a big fish in a small (or little) pond a person seen as important and influential only within the limited scope of a small organization or group. drink like a fish drink excessive amounts of alcohol.fish or cut bait see bait. a fish out of water a person in a completely unsuitable environment or situation.fished out depleted of fish: the grayling here have hardly been fished out. have other (or bigger) fish to fry have other (or more important) matters to attend to. like shooting fish in a barrel extremely easy: picking cultivated berries is like shooting fish in a barrel. neither fish nor fowl (nor good red herring) of indefinite character and difficult to identify or classify. there are plenty more fish in the sea used to console someone whose romantic relationship has ended by pointing out that there are many other people with whom they may have a successful relationship in the future.DERIVATIVES: fish·like adj. fish2 / fish/ • n. a flat plate of metal, wood, or another material that is fixed on a beam or across a joint in order to give additional strength, esp. on a ship's damaged mast or spar as a temporary repair. • v. [tr.] mend or strengthen (a beam, joint, mast, etc.) with a fish. ∎ join (rails in a railroad track) with a fishplate.
Ocean saltwater covers more than three-quarters of Earth's surface; lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, canals, swamps, marshes, and other forms of freshwater cover vast expanses of the planet's surface as well. One of the most successful groups of animals that have evolved to fill all these habitats are fish.
There are two types of fish: a small group with skeletons made of cartilage (a bonelike elastic tissue less rigid than true bone) and an enormous group with skeletons made of bone (like that found in humans). Cartilaginous fish include the sharks, skates, rays, and dogfish. The remainder—more than 25,000 species (more than all other species of vertebrates combined)—are known as bony fish.
All fish are cold-blooded, meaning they do not have a constant body temperature but take on the temperature of the surrounding water. The majority of fish species have bodies that are streamlined; their bodies are covered with tiny, smooth scales that offer no resistance to a fish's movement through water. The scales themselves are covered with a slimy coating that further reduces friction. Additionally, a fish's external appendages (fins) have been reduced to produce minimal resistance to the water as they propel the fish through it. Fins fall into two categories: vertical fins, which occur individually, and paired fins. Examples of the vertical fins are a dorsal fin that runs down the middle of a fish's back and the anal fin that runs along its underside. Examples of paired fins are those that appear on either side of a fish's upper body, below and behind its eyes.
The form, size, and number of fins varies considerably according to an individual species' habitat and requirements. In fast-swimming species, such as the tuna or mackerel, the dorsal and anal fins have thin, sharp shapes that reduce friction. In puffer or porcupine fish, by contrast, the fins are greatly reduced—for use in short paddling movements. Other species, such as eels, have lost almost all traces of external fins and swim instead by rhythmic movements of their muscular bodies.
Another important adaptation made by fish is their swim bladder. The swim bladder is a chamber filled with air that allows a fish to remain at the same level in water while expending very little energy.
Fish breathe through structures known as gills. When a fish takes in water through its mouth, the flaps that cover its gills are closed. When the fish closes its mouth, the flaps open and water is expelled through the gills. In this process, oxygen dissolved in the water is absorbed into the fish's bloodstream.
Bony fish are either carnivorous (meat-eating), herbivorous (planteating), or both. And fish are, of course, one of the world's most popular foods. In island nations and countries with long coastlines, fish are a major part of the diet. They are also a healthful food since they are high in protein and low in fat content.
The cartilaginous fish—whose skeletons are made of cartilage—include both sharks and rays. An intriguing characteristic of sharks is the presence of tiny primitive teeth on their skin. These denticles are similar in some ways to human teeth, although much smaller in size. Thus the texture of a shark's skin is similar to that of fine sandpaper. Human swimmers can be badly cut by coming into contact with the skin of a shark. The skin of a ray, on the other hand, is entirely smooth except for the back or upper tail surface, where denticles have developed into large, strong spines.
The jaw teeth of both sharks and rays are, in fact, modified denticles. These teeth are lost when they become worn and are replaced by rows of new teeth from the space behind them. In some species of sharks, the jaw looks like an assembly line, with new teeth filling spaces immediately.
Like bony fish, both sharks and rays breathe through gills. They also have an opening called a spiracle on both sides of the head behind the eye. The spiracle allows water to flow through the gills without taking in large amounts of mud and sand. This adaptation is especially useful for rays, which often bury in the sand, and for sharks, which often rest on the ocean bottom. Unlike the bony fish, sharks and rays do not possess a swim bladder.
Cartilaginous fish are predatory: they feed on other animals, from zooplankton to shellfish to whales. And they themselves are sought after by humans as a food source. Shark meat, once marketed under the pseudonyms of flake and steakfish, is now popular worldwide. Shark fins have long been popular in Asia. Rays are considered delicacies in Great Britain and France, and thornback rays and flapper skates are often sold as sea trout.
[See also Coelacanth ]
At least 20,000 species of fishes live in the world's lakes, streams, estuaries , and oceans. Adult fish may be very small, such as the guppies that many people keep in their home aquariums, or extremely large, such as whale sharks that can weigh over 15 metric tons and reach 12 meters (about 40 feet).
The study of fishes is called ichthyology, and scientists who study fish anatomy, physiology, and taxonomy are known as ichthyologists. Fisheries scientists and fishery biologists are scientists who are interested in the population structure, reproduction, growth, and behavior of fishes that are economically important: that is, those species associated with recreational and commercial fisheries.
Overview of Characteristics
Fish are biologically and behaviorally well suited for their specific habitat. Body shape, feeding adaptations, and swimming behavior are examples of the characteristics unique to species.
Salinity and Habitat.
While one species of fish may be restricted to fresh water (e.g., largemouth bass), another may be found only in the open ocean (e.g., halibut). Such species are called stenohaline, meaning that they cannot tolerate much change in salinity . Many fishes, on the other hand, are found in estuaries where salinity is constantly changing. Examples of these euryhaline species are summer flounder, red drum, and striped bass.
Fish that reproduce in fresh water and have offspring that migrate to the ocean where they spend their adult lives are called anadromous (e.g., Atlantic and Pacific salmon). In contrast, fish that reproduce in the ocean and whose young migrate to fresh water to grow into adulthood are known as catadromous (e.g., American and European eels). Species that do not move into and out of fresh water at certain stages of their lives vary greatly with respect to their movements. Some fish (e.g., moray eels) develop very small home ranges, whereas others (e.g., tuna) may cover thousands of kilometers as they wander the world's oceans.
Fish may have skeletons made of bone, as found in most species, or cartilage, as found in sharks, skates, and rays. While the majority of fishes have scales—sometimes very tiny ones—there are some that do not have any scales (e.g., catfish). Scales may give the fish a silvery appearance, or they may contain pigment that helps the fish blend in with its environment.
All fishes have mouths, which may or may not contain well-developed teeth. All fishes also have intestines of some form, but not all species have stomachs. The majority are carnivores or omnivores , although a few species are herbivores . For example, grass carp eat aquatic plants, and some reef fish scrape up algae as food.
Body shape is highly variable, though the majority of fishes are essentially torpedo-shaped. There are many variations, from short and fat to long and very slender. Flatfish (halibut and flounders), as the name implies, have very thin bodies, and instead of swimming upright, they swim and lie on the bottom on one side. Both eyes are located on the same side of the head (i.e., the upper side). Flatfish have the remarkable ability to change the color and pattern on their upper surface to blend in with the type of bottom with which they are associated. Some fish look like lumps of coral or rock (e.g., stonefish), another form of camouflage.
Locomotion, Protection, and Feeding.
Most fish have a well-developed swimming ability and may be able to move very rapidly. Their tails are used to provide the thrust needed for high-speed swimming. Salmon, for example, are able to leap over low waterfalls on their upstream spawning migrations. Not all fish are strong swimmers, however. The ocean sunfish, for example, can be found floating at the surface of the water in the Pacific Ocean. A large fish (up to a few hundred kilograms), it has small fins and limited mobility. Moray eels hide in holes in rocks or coral reefs and spring out to grab prey that swim by.
To avoid being eaten, prey species often swim in schools that number many thousands of individuals. A predator seeing such a school may avoid it on the basis that the school could, in fact, be a fish larger than itself. If the predator does attack, it will be able to take only a small fraction of the total number of fish available.
Many fish do not swim in schools but depend on camouflage, swimming ability, or the tendency to seek refuge in crevices to avoid predation. Anemone fish can live among the stinging tentacles of sea anemones. Those fish are immune to the stinging cells, so they are protected from predators.
Most fish seek out their food by sight and actively search for it by swimming around. A few, on the other hand, wait for food to come to them. Anglerfish have a fleshy protrusion on their heads that acts like a fishing lure. Some anglerfish rest on the bottom, camouflaged to match their surroundings, and wave their lure until an unsuspecting smaller fish investigates. Anglerfish that inhabit the deep ocean, where light does not penetrate, have lures that glow in the dark to attract prey.
Reproduction in fish usually involves laying eggs that are externally fertilized, though a few give birth to live young. Eggs may be dispersed into the water column, laid in nests hollowed out in the bottom sediments, incubated in the mouth of the adult, or attached to rocks or plants in a gelatinous mass. There may be no parental care, or one or both parents may provide close attention during incubation, hatching, and even the first few weeks of life.
see also Ecology, Fresh-Water; Ecology, Marine; Fisheries, Fresh-Water; Fisheries, Marine; Fishes, Cartilaginous; Food from the Sea; Life in Water.
Robert R. Stickney
Bond, Carl E. Biology of Fishes, 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders, 1997.
Moyers, Peter B., and Joseph J. Cech, Jr. Fishes: An Introduction to Ichthyology, 4th ed.Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.
FISH (German Geheimschreiber Cipher Machine)
FISH (German Geheimschreiber Cipher Machine)
█ ADRIENNE WILMOTH LERNER
As late as the World War I era, cryptology depended on highly trained people at both ends of a communication to cipher and decipher a message. Codes were often kept in books that were vulnerable to enemy capture. The capturing of German code books by British military intelligence in World War I gave the Allies a significant tactical advantage. Soon after the war, technological advances in communication were applied to the sending and receiving of complexly coded text. Skilled cipherers and and codebooks were replaced by cipher machines. Modern cryptographers, therefore, not only had to break enemy codes, but also determine how foreign cipher machines operated and generated codes. Cipher machines produced more mathematically intricate and random codes that were difficult to break. Because many cipher machine codes were dependent upon both the sender and the receiver machines, the caputre of coded teleprinters did not dictate that a code could be broken.
In the 1930s, the German government comissioned the Seimans Company to create a cipher machine teleprinter that could produce, send, and receive plain and coded text. The idea behind the teleprinter was to randomize codes to make them more difficult to break, and to increase code information security. Seimans developed their first cipher teleprinter, the Geheimschreiber, with two encription features, overlaying of code and transposition of pulses. Long pre-dating digital technology, both the basic encription functions and the receipt of transpositioned pulses depended on mechanical circuts, namely various code wheels for text and charged capacators and their corresponding relays for the pulse. The machine's ten code wheels had periods corresponding with prime numbers between 47 and 73. Thus, the wheels combined to form 893,622,318,929,520,960 permutations, or steps. Eight basic patterns with over two billion variations were possible in regards to pulse transposition. These combined encryption mechanisms led the German government to assume that the Geheimschreiber was nearly random and unbreakable; however, the mathematical patterns used by the machines proved to be more systematic than they perceived.
Teleprinters utilized the 32-character Baudot code. The code output consisted of five channels, represented as holes or no holes in varying orders, to produce each character. The German cipher machines relied on the Vernam cipher system, a mathematical code based on the principle of binary addition. That is, two coded characters were added together to produce the ciphered text. Code breakers knew of both the Baudot code and Vernam system, but the obscuring factors of the German Geheimschreiber made deciphering the code difficult.
The German cipher machines were supposed to change starting positions with every message, notifying the receiving end of a given transmission in plain text of the starting steps on the code wheels. Thus, the obscuring sequence of each code was supposedly unique. Code breakers in Sweden worked to break the Geheimschreiber code mathematically, and did so with measurable success in 1942. However, the work was tedious and by the time they had produced several decoding machines, the highest levels of the German command had begun to use the newer Lorenz cipher machine. Swedish cryptologists were unable to decipher any wire traffic after February, 1944.
British intelligence cryptologists at Bletchley Park thought the best hope of readily deciphering German teleprinters was to intercept a depth, or two messages that utilized the same starting position. While codebreakers had some success mathmatically decoding Fish ciphered German transmissions, on August 30, 1941, British intelligence intercepted a 4,000-character-long depth. The Lorenz code was broken soon afterward by John Tiltman and Bill Tutte. Working out long code sequences by hand, the two uncovered the logical structure of the German cipher. With this knowledge, several "Tunny," now the code name for Lorenz transmissions, machines were constructed to facilitate decoding of intercepts. However, the start position settings of each message still had to be discovered by hand.
In 1943, British mathematician Max Newman and British engineer Tommy Flowers designed and built Colossus, a machine that not only simplified the process of deciphering German teleprinter intercepts, but that could be used with Geheimschreiber, Lorenz, and radio transmissions. Colossus' greatest contribution to codebreaking however was its ability to electronically decode the start position of each ciphered intercept, eliminating the need for painstaking hand calculations. The system was instrumental in the planning and execution of the allied D-Day invasion.
█ FURTHER READING:
Goldreich, Oded. Foundations of Cryptography: Basic Tools. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Stinson, Douglas. Cryptography: Theory and Practice, second edition. Chapman and Hall, 2002.
More than three quarters of Earth’s surface is covered by oceans, which are made up of saltwater, and by freshwater in the form of lakes, rivers, canals, swamps, marshes, and other watercourses. Many species of life have adapated to exist in water. One of the most successful is fish.
There are two types of fish; those that have a skeleton comprised of cartilage and those with a bony skeleton. The former include the sharks, dogfish, skates, and rays. The remainder, and by far the most abundant in terms of numbers and species, are known as the bony fishes. More than 25,000 species of bony fish have been described.
In general, bony fish are streamlined to reduce water resistance, with specialized fins that provide propulsion. Fins can be arranged vertically either alone or in pairs. The former include a dorsal fin in the midline of the back, an anal fin along the underside and a caudal fin at the rear end of the fish. Paired fins are also known as pectoral and pelvic fins; they correspond to the limbs of terrestrial vertebrates.
The majority of fish species have no neck, and all external appendages with the exception of the fins are reduced. The body is covered with tiny, smooth scales that offer no resistance to the water. The form, size, and number of fins varies considerably according to the individual’s habitat and requirements. In fast-swimming species such as tuna or mackerel the dorsal and anal fins form sharp thin keels. Departures from this body shape are very common. Puffer or porcupine fish, for example, have short, round bodies with greatly reduced fins that are more effective in brief, sculling movements, rather than in rapid movement. Other species such as eels have lost almost all traces of external fins and swim instead by rhythmic movements of their muscular bodies.
In exploiting the aquatic and marine habitats, fish have evolved a number of unique features. One of these is the manner in which they breathe. The respiratory surface of fish forms special gills which are highly convoluted and well supplied with blood. Water is passed over the gills as the body moves through the water. As it does, the highly dissolved oxygen in the water meets the respiratory surface, diffuses across the membrane and into the blood where it is taken up by hemoglobin pigment in the blood cells.
Another important adaptation which has meant that fish have been able to thrive in the rich waters of the seas and rivers has been the development of the swim bladder—a special organ which has arisen from an outgrowth of the alimentary canal. This gas-filled chamber fulfills several functions, but one of the most important is in providing buoyancy, a feature that enables bony fish to remain at the same level in the water column without expending any energy. Sharks and rays do not possess a swim bladder.
Over evolutionary time, fish developed a wide range of behavioral specializations that include feeding adaptations, courtship, and breeding behaviors, and defensive and attacking postures. Many of these are assisted or augmented through special sensory organs, most of which have evolved independently in many of these species. Altogether, they combine to provide the fishes at all stages of their lives with a wide range of specialized adaptations that enable them to live and reproduce so successfully on Earth.
More than three quarters of Earth's surface is covered by salt water ; in addition, large areas are inundated with freshwater in the form of lakes, rivers , canals, swamps, and marshes. It is therefore not surprising that animals and plants have undergone a wide radiation in such habitats. One of the most successful groups of animals that have evolved to fill all of these habitats is the fish. Today it is possible to find different sorts of fish at all depths of the oceans and lakes-from the shoreline to the base of the deepest ocean trenches.
There are two types of fish on Earth : those that have a skeleton comprised of cartilage and those with a bony skeleton. The former include the sharks , dogfish, skates , and rays . The remainder, and by far the most abundant in terms of numbers and species , are known as the bony fishes. More than 25,000 species have been described. The majority of these are streamlined to reduce water resistance, with specialized fins that provide propulsion. Fins are basically of two types: vertical, or unpaired fins, and paired fins. The former include a dorsal fin in the midline of the back, an anal fin along the underside and a caudal fin at the rear end of the fish. The paired fins are known as pectoral and pelvic fins; they correspond to the limbs of terrestrial vertebrates .
In the majority of species, there is no neck, and all external appendages, with the exception of the fins, have been reduced. The body is covered with tiny, smooth scales that offer no resistance to the water. The form, size, and number of fins varies considerably according to the individual's habitat and requirements. In fast-swimming species such as tuna or mackerel , the dorsal and anal fins form sharp thin keels that offer little resistance to water flow. Departures from this body shape, however, are very common. Puffer or porcupine fish, for example, have short, round bodies with greatly reduced fins that are more effective in brief, sculling movements than rapid movement. Yet other species such as eels have lost almost all traces of external fins and swim instead by rhythmic movements of their muscular bodies.
In exploiting the aquatic and marine habitats, fish have evolved a number of unique features. One of these is the manner in which they breathe. The respiratory surface of fish forms special gills which are highly convoluted and well supplied with blood . Water is passed over the gills as the body moves through the water. As it does, the highly dissolved oxygen in the water meets the respiratory surface, diffuses across the membrane and into the blood where it is taken up by hemoglobin pigment in the blood cells.
Another important adaptation which has meant that fish have been able to thrive in the rich waters of the seas and rivers has been the development of the swim bladder- a special organ which has arisen from an outgrowth of the alimentary canal . This gas-filled chamber fulfills several functions, but one of the most important is in providing buoyancy, a feature that enables bony fish to remain at the same level in the water column without expending any energy . Sharks and rays do not possess a swim bladder.
In conquering the water environment, fish have developed a wide range of behavioral specializations that include feeding adaptations, courtship , and breeding behaviors, and defensive and attacking postures. Many of these are assisted or augmented through special sensory organs, most of which have evolved independently in many of these species. Altogether, they combine to provide the fishes at all stages of their lives with a wide range of specialized adaptations that enable them to live and reproduce so successfully on Earth.
See also Cartilaginous fish.
A fish is a vertebrate (an animal with a backbone) that lives in the water and breathes through gills. It has a streamlined body and is usually protected by a hard coat of scales. Fish species vary greatly in size and shape, but all are cold-blooded and most have fins. Fish live in watery habitats as diverse as stagnant ponds and subzero polar water.
As a vertebrate that lives its entire life underwater, a fish is ectothermic or cold-blooded. This means that it is not necessarily cold but that its own, internal temperature rises or lowers to meet that of its environment. If anything defines a fish as a fish, it is that it breathes through gills. These respiratory organs that lie behind and to the side of the mouth are able to absorb oxygen that is dissolved in water and to give off carbon dioxide as the water passes over the gills' filaments. Oxygen-rich blood is then pumped by a heart to the rest of its body.
Most fish have a streamlined body over which water flows easily as it moves through the water. Fish are able to swim forward by contracting the muscles on each side of their body in turn so that their tail whips from side to side and pushes them forward. Fins allow them to maneuver and have control and balance, while an inflatable swim bladder keeps them from sinking when they are not swimming. As a fish descends to deeper waters, the increase in pressure compresses and deflates the bladder, allowing the fish to swim deeper. As the fish rises again and the pressure decreases, the bladder begins to inflate with gas. The majority of fish have scales that are overlapping plates that protect its body. A fish does not shed these scales, because they grow as its body grows. Mucus usually covers these scales, as it helps the fish to glide more easily through the water.
Most fish reproduce sexually through the union of male sperm and female eggs, but it takes place outside the female's body by what is called spawning. Spawning is the release of eggs by the female into the water. The male then releases his sperm over the eggs and some of the eggs are fertilized.
Biologists have grouped fish into three classes: jawless fish, cartilage fish, and bony fish. A jawless fish is a primitive, wormlike fish without a hinged jaw. This means that it usually has a simple, sucker-like mouth instead. A lamprey eel is a good example of this ancient type of fish. The lamprey is a parasite and sucks the blood and juices from live fish. The only other jawless fish is the scavenger fish called the hagfish. It has a round mouth and attaches itself to the bodies of dead or dying fish, feeding on the contents of the victim's body.
Cartilage fish have an endoskeleton (internal skeleton) made entirely of strong, flexible cartilage instead of bone. These fish are almost always hunters such as sharks, skates, and rays who live in the ocean. They all have jaws, scales, and paired fins. Their skin is covered with tiny scales that feel like sandpaper. The shark is an especially ferocious predator that must swim all the time because it has no swimbladder. Sharks are powerful swimmers and have teeth that grow in rows that move forward to replace lost teeth.
Bony fish make up the third and largest category of fish. Also called "true fish," these have an endoskeleton made up mostly of bone. The familiar trout, salmon, cod, and sardine are all bony fish. Bony fish all have a gill cover or flap and like all fish, a keen sense of smell. Bony fish usually have highly maneuverable fins that allow them to make rapid and complex movements. Although bony fish are, as their name implies, all bone, their skeleton is in fact very light and thin because they use the natural buoyancy of water to support their bodies. Fish are an important food source for people.
[See alsoIchthyology ]