August 15, 2012KR OnlineReview

Becoming: The Southern Subjunctive of Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise

New York, NY: Scribner, 2012. 240 pages. $24.00.

Birds of a Lesser ParadiseIn a few years, Portlandia’s cultural diatribe “Put a bird on it!” will be mostly forgotten; this story collection will not be. Yes, there is a big bird on the cover, but no, this is not a book about birds. Yes, there are many animals in this book, but no, this is not a book about animals—at least, not exactly. The non-human creatures in this story collection help each story come alive with great tenderness, and that’s no small thing, but in the end they are not the story. The story here is one that should be familiar to all of us, animal lover or no, because it involves the way in which we come to accept ourselves in the context of our particular region. In other words, what we become and where we become it.

The narrators and protagonists in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise can’t help but undergo counterfactual thinking. They often obsess over that alternate reality that superimposes itself on all of us, a reality where we make different choices, are better parents, better children, take better care of our pets, can always sing on pitch, never gain weight, and so on. These are Southerners, haunted not by Christ or Sherman or even obesity—shocking, right?—but instead, by possibility.

The narrator of “The-Two-Thousand-Dollar Sock” laments, “Now the woman I meant to become was on vacation, on the other line, otherwise engaged. She’d eloped with my free time, taken my figure, seized my sense of control.” These narrators are trying to put at bay the “possible” so that they can accept reality and move on but it’s difficult. As the circumstances of each story become irretrievable and hard, the characters weaken and the subjunctive rushes in. In “Housewifely Arts” the narrator is forced to speculate and the speculation gets the better of her: “If I were a better mother, I would say no. If I were a better mother, there would be a cooler with crustless PB and J in a Baggie, a plastic bin of carrot wedges and seedless grapes. If I were a better daughter, Ike would have known his grandmother, spent more time in her arms, wowed her with his impersonation of Christopher Plummer’s Captain von Trapp.”

Bergman builds her stories with well-cadenced dialogue and emotive cleverness, reminiscent of Amy Hempel or Mary Robinson, but she also has something to add: the power of an authentic landscape, a “place,” that thing Eudora Welty once called “the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief.” Because of this, the pain of failed expectation and loss experienced by the characters is reciprocated by their region. The landscape of this book “conducts” the protagonists’ conflict into itself until both the place and the people are struggling toward transcendence together. The title story, for example, anchors the narrator’s internal state to the physical world, her desire in one sentence and her disquiet in the next: “I could smell the swamp rose, harlot pink and fragrant in the hot night. Dry magnolia leaves scratched against the vinyl siding of the house.” Surely this is what John Casey once described as, “The powerful, careful gearing of the physical to the felt.” Consciousness extends outward in moments like these and provides a respite from the perspective confines that might threaten a predominantly first person story collection. The whole collection benefits—and perhaps could have benefited even more—when the prose takes us away from the narrators’ immediate circumstances and into the circumstances of their place, the small towns of eastern North Carolina, full of foreclosure, kudzu, pine trees, people who think the world is ending, and an eerie misplaced longing—all too familiar to anyone who grew up in the South. The good news is that you don’t have to be a Southerner to find these stories familiar and affecting; you’d just have to be one to write them.

All but one story in this collection is narrated in the first person, a perspective that offers the closest formal intimacy with internal struggle. For this reason it isn’t dramatic action that provides completion for these stories, as might be the case with the Southern cannon. Instead, we often leave the characters in the midst of their crisis, with aging parents to care for, homes to sell, children to call and reconcile with, partners to replace. There is no neat sealing-up of circumstance here. What completes these stories is their final surrender to reality, to the world as it is and not as it could be. As in the ending of “The Right Company”: “In towns like these, I thought, there are no perfect rescues. You go down with your own ship.” Or, the end of “The Two-Thousand-Dollar Sock,” “One day it will tear her away from us, take her down a dirt road to a place she does not recognize, and there she will make her home. Away from everything she understands, and close to everything she wants.” A tonal shift occurs as each story concludes. The narrator finds the strength to turn away from the tyranny of the “possible.” More so, these endings signify that greater yearning, to move past an ideal and accept and nurture what is actually there, bi- or quad-ped.

In Maurice Manning’s poem, “A Bestiary,” the speaker poses a few important questions, questions Bergman seems to pose as well:

                                                   Were you
raised up with a beast beside you? I mean

a serious beast. Well, if you were,
you know you never owned it. Did

you ever give your thumb to a calf
and feel how hard it pulls, and feel

the pulling pull you?

In many ways, this story collection “pulls” on me. I guess that’s a way of saying I liked it very much. But more than just pleasure tugs on me here; the pull comes from a certain sort of wisdom. I would even say that Manning’s “pull” defines a type of wisdom. Forgive me if I can’t define or explain it. I will say that it has something to do with acknowledging ourselves, not in the world of what “could be” but in a local world, a place of living things that deserve our scrutiny and affection.

Nathan Poole is the author of two books of fiction, Father Brother Keeper, a collection of stories selected by Edith Pearlman for the 2013 Mary McCarthy Prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award, and Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost, selected by Benjamin Percy as the winner of the 2014 Quarterly West Novella Contest. He has been awarded the Narrative Prize, a Milton Fellowship at Image, and a Joan Beebe Fellowship at Warren Wilson College. He lives in Boone, North Carolina, where he works on tree farms and teaches writing.