Views and Reviews

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Views and Reviews: Barbara Knott

A Journey Into Place: R. Cary Bynum, Woodhall Stories. Haworth, N. J.: St. Johann Press, 2014.

By setting these ten stories from the 1940s and 1950s in a very particular middle-class neighborhood “near the line between southeast and northeast Atlanta,” Cary Bynum has redeemed from oblivion a strong and at the same time fragile sense of what this barely visible world was like. The stories flicker and pass with a ghostly edge around them, as if their disappearance is somehow as important as their appearance. But in those moments while we are reading, each story comes vividly to life: houses and furniture, gardens, streets, and vehicles emerge alongside characters as stalwart as stone monuments, from which the departed ones briefly become inspirited.

The stories are short, averaging nine pages in which characters come and go through a few scenes of daily life on Woodhall Street. Here, home is a sanctuary for relaxing—at least on Fridays—from the workaday world where residents engage in the business of the city that affords them an income to support owning a house and perhaps a car and tending a garden, which seems to be one of the main pleasures of these folk who peer from windows, porches, and yards, allowing us to see through their eyes the shape and dramatic life of the neighborhood.

On Woodhall Street, rising through the scent of privet and jasmine, there are white birch trees, willows and oaks, fig trees, and the occasional chinaberry tree, like the one that became the core image of a long poem anchoring Bynum’s first volume of poetry. Here, people keep goats, chickens, and ducks, a custom that has disappeared in urban life along with the vegetable trucks idling here and there where people can come out to buy whatever may be missing from their backyard gardens. In these stories you can see his poetic eye at work in images: Chimney swifts sliced skyward on tiny wings.

There are no large extraverted gestures among these modest folk, but nods and waves and brief exchanges, as neighbors notice signs of change in each other’s situations; for instance, when one spouse or another is not seen for a long time. Death is a quiet drama that stalks the home folks, some of whom have suffered the more dramatic news of sons dying in the war that took so many during the 1940s. In one story called “Woodhall Mystery,” a bolt of surprise comes with a mystery where death is not the answer to the question of what happened to your spouse? … not that anyone would have asked it that directly.

The way Bynum writes about place creates in me a tactile response, so that I “feel” my way into his stories and out of them again. In the third story, “Friday Evening,” my kinetic sense takes me with the character up a steep driveway and cement steps onto the front porch with red-brick archways and through the screened door with black hinges to the mahogany clothes rack in the corner of a room with powder blue curtains on the windows, then across a polished floor and a blue flat braided rug to sit in a brown leather chair under white lamplight and read the newspaper until I am handed the black phone receiver attached to a weighty black carriage. Then out to take a brown sack of scraps and deposit them into one of three neat, scrubbed garbage cans. There we encounter Old Skip, a knee-high white terrier with black spots on back and muzzle. Even the dog is middle class, with his own house in the back yard near the cabbage patch.

Emphasis on middle class life is underscored in this succinct sketch of the life of Fred and Withla Hart whose yard we are talking about: “On Friday evenings they talked, he and Mrs. Hart, their only certain night of the week—between Masons, the Methodist Church, business obligations and travel—they could claim for themselves.” On Friday evenings Fred Hart feels “a deep familiar twinge . . . sharper now in late September; it peeled back protective surfaces, exposed his insides.” Here we can see and feel the stress of living behind a persona created for a world in which so much depends on appearances.

They have lived alone (with their dog Skip) since their son Gene went to war and died aboard an aircraft carrier in 1944. I say alone, but not so: “… increasingly unspoken but no less present in their night together—and every night—was Gene. He was their third self, their only child, always in the air they breathed.” Soon we learn that Gene was “a builder of ships placed in bottles along the walls of his spotless room, which was maintained with all his furniture to this day.” And we learn that sometimes on Saturday mornings children from the neighborhood show up and ask to see the collection and wonder how Gene got the ships into the bottles, to which Fred replies, “Well, now … that’s a secret … Sometime you tell me!”

From this wonderful image, we may be able to imagine how Bynum built his stories, from outside in, reaching with small architectural pieces to construct, strengthen, and refine not yachts or schooners but sturdy, modest sail boats wafting with the wind of story, each with its own peculiar features, now and then inviting a thrill or two for the passengers and hence for the reader.

High drama occurs only when the sanctuary is threatened. In one story called “Peek’s Sanctuary,” we are privy to the disdainful behavior of a “blue collar” family of eight, each one “louder and more nasal” than the other, who have moved into a corner house. Mr. Peek thinks longingly of the previous neighbors, “sometimes seen, occasionally greeted, otherwise never heard from, their yard and house kept in pristine condition.” The current occupants grate on the nerves of Junius Peek and eventually try to force friendliness out of him until his rebuffs send them away, withholding acceptance of his distant gesture toward reconciliation. The sinister encounter that precedes their going is honed by Bynum’s skills as a playwright and one-time boxer full of wily moves and hard punches.

“July Visitors” offers a further venture in this direction as we watch A. D. Bentley deal with unexpected and unwanted intruders into his sanctuary. Another story, “Thunder,” gives us glimpses into the troubled life of Doyle Mercer who survived the “terrible Hurtgen campaign,” returning to Woodhall to suffer after-effects that are sometimes aligned with the sound of thunder.

In one story there is a reference to a treehouse high in a towering oak where young Ralph watches “doings” in the neighborhood. One can’t help thinking of young Cary Bynum gathering his impressions for the stories that he will present with touches of humor like the anecdote given in the first story “Last Light” of Martha Acree Griggs’ “large, black, one-eyed tomcat, Ephrates, who had died two years ago at the age of eighteen.” We learn that some years ago, “Martha had made the cat a white eye-patch for his missing eye, thinking it would amuse her mother, as perhaps it might have a decade or so earlier. But old Mrs. Acree only stared at him for a full three minutes and then ordered her daughter to remove the patch. Martha could not shake the feeling that her mother had thought the cat had put it there himself as a kind of affectation.”

Like any good poet (Bynum has published, in addition to the two volumes of short stories, two of poetry as well), the storyteller creates a world that allows the reader to dream her own dreams about it. In this instance, while reading, I was overwhelmed with memories about my own extended family’s connection to Kirkwood (an actual neighborhood in the same area of Atlanta, which may have been Bynum’s model or source). One set of grandparents lived there. Others lived in and moved around the city during the same period described in these stories. My father-in-law attended Atlanta Boys’ High School and married a girl from Atlanta Girls’ High. They moved into an apartment near Georgia Tech. He played steel guitar in a Hawaiian band on WSB radio, was an Episcopalian, a Mason and a salesman for Cooper Tire Company. He became a lover of opera and of the voice of Caruso, whom he heard in person as part of the standing-room-only crowds who gathered at the Fox Theater to see and hear the touring Metropolitan Opera from New York. Like the characters in Bynum's stories, these relatives were part of the burgeoning of the middle class at mid-twentieth century in Atlanta. The conventions they helped to create are present in Woodhall Stories along with eccentricities that mark the characters as individuals.

The last story, “Dark Quest” is, as the title suggests, a romance in which the troubadour is a 57 year-old blind man Russell Gower who sings under the window of his lady love Miss Beverly Snead, with whom he shares “the gift of real companionship.”

This book of stories is for me a gift of real companionship. As each story recedes into the mist of memory, I feel as if I am emerging from a haunted house and pause for a few moments on the front porch steps to notice the shiver that goes across the back of my neck: a recognition not of horrors but of the unending mysteries of imagination that storytelling brings to us even in this mildest of strolls through a neighborhood. When I say the stories recede, I mean that they slip out of sight, into hiding, back into the book, where they can be discovered again by anyone in search of story.

Follow this link to my earlier review of Bynum's book of poetry:

Copyright 2014, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.