Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Hometown Heroes: Some Locals You Should Know, Pt 2 (Doris Betts)

In the last “installment” of Hometown Heroes, I talked about how much I love mountain-man and accomplished NC author Ron Rash. In this one, I’m going to steer us closer to the Piedmont to discuss the recently deceased and wildly talented Doris Betts.

A short story girl at heart, my first encounter with Doris Betts began in a Southern Literature class at UNC my senior year. Jaded, worldly, and obviously as sage as they come, I had, by that point, grown pretty bored of most of the required reading my professors had assigned that semester. Then came Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” -- perfectly paced, beautifully-rendered, sympathetic characters, and themes that unfold like a blossom under water. It centers on a “homely” woman (quotation marks to indicate a narrator who is lovably unreliable and insecure), whose journey to see a religious healer in the mid-century American South forces her to confront her perceptions of herself as they compare to the rest of the world’s.

The writing is that rare-as-they-come mix of effortless and devastating. I would read a few sentences speedily, and then stop in my tracks at some gorgeous turn of phrase. By no means flowery, Betts encompasses what I see as a real woman’s writer. The protagonist isn’t daffy or shallow, and her superficialities peel back to reveal the depth of a real human. Fellows, that doesn’t mean this isn’t for you. Like Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady,” a flesh-and-blood character is enjoyable no matter what sex you happen to be.

Her short story collection Beasts of the Southern Wild (no connection to the movie, so far as I can tell) is at turns surreal, grounded, and nightmarish, like Kafka strained through a molasses sieve (is that even a real thing?). Come pick up a copy here at Flyleaf!

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