Disorder Above Key West

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Click the grey arrow above for sound

 

I lifted my head and croaked

Like a crow, and the nails

Vibrated with something like music . . .

James Dickey, “A Folk Singer of the Thirties”

1

Henry David Dobson

Out of action, losing traction,

I slid down South, a bad mistake.

Florida is flat, crawling with con men,

rattlesnakes, swamps, and tattooed

waitresses who call you “Sugar Britches.”

 

Shooting for Key West, got waylaid in Mayo,

Way down upon the Suwannee River,

A taint of a town (tain’t panhandle,

tain’t peninsula), impoverished

in more ways than one.  No fun.

 

Met Loquacia at a juke joint call’d Phas 2,

a concrete block shit hole

not far from the “Bo Gator Motel” where

I was staying – not clean, not well-lighted –

and my money was dwindling.

 

Loquacia was into iguanas, had them

inked all over her skin, crawling up

her back from butt crack to shoulder

blade and up over down betwixt her tits

crawling down under disappearing into her panties.

 

Just got one tat, the name of my dead son,

Thom, one letter from left to right

in the crotches between my fingers.

I open my hand and spread the span,

and poof! his name appears in Gothic.

 

Anyways, I spent my days scrounging,

hooked up, thanks to L, with this cat who claimed

to be from JA, Mo-Bay, but could have been

some South Carolina geechie for all I know,

but he paid me good to make a run.

 

Seems he supplied some squids

at the base up in Jacksonville.

2 kilos of what the geechie calls ganga

stowed in the trunk of my Chevy

in duffel bags. What could go wrong?

 

Long story short.  I’m writing this

from the Duval County Jail.  Loquacia

ain’t darkened the door.  Silver lining,

my rap sheet ain’t that bad: shoplifting,

public drunkenness, simple possession.

 

Working with a public defender, an

idealistic Jewish girl named Rachel.

She asked me about the tats, and sort

of teared up, she did.  Maybe she can get

me off – and by that I mean out of jail.

 

Anyways, here I sit, way

out of action, with absolutely no

traction. a semi-literate Oscar Wilde,

waiting for my upcoming trial

where I’ll sing like Joan Baez.

2

Durwood Jett

Took the back roads to Tallahassee

to avoid the monotony of mile markers,

dead armadillos, and exit signs.

Took the back roads and took my time.

 

Didn’t make it quick enough to see him die,

but my step-mama filled me in,

sucking on a Marlboro like a man,

“A horrible death, a horrible death,” she said,

over and over, shaking her head.

 

I didn’t know what to say. “Too bad.”

“He fought it hard,” she said, “screamed

‘Get that Gotdamn light out of my face,’

then up and passed.”  She’d took a picture

and showed it to me.  Looked like

all dead people look – his eyes froze,

his mouth froze open like a fish.

 

No, my daddy and me didn’t get along,

the house not big enough to hold

the two of us.  Like in that

Springsteen song.  We’d cuss each other

and sometimes come to blows.  Of course,

me 35, half his age, been able whip him

for a while.  He sure whipped me

back then before, cracking a buckled belt.

 

Can’t quite pity the poor dead bastard,

laying there waxy with his hair slicked back

in that Sears and Roebuck suit, striped tie,

his mouth glued closed, his eyes glued shut.

 

His daddy beat him, and that daddy

beat that daddy before that.  I ain’t

got no offspring, but got my own

business, mind my own business,

so I have the time to take my time,

to take the back roads, to avoid

traffic, to miss all them 18-wheelers in a hurry

to reach them warehouses they can’t abide.

3

Chuckie Brent

When Jimmy Jeffcoat’s meth lab blew,

me and Tiny Wade was smoking a joint

back behind outside the Stop and Go.

 

Boom.  One blast.  BOOM.  Tiny jumped

about a foot and a half, like a bullet or bigger

was headed his way.  “Got damn, what was that?”

I told him I reckoned a transformer blew,

or maybe a sonic boom? but then we heard a siren’s

whoop-whoop and knew that something bad was up.

 

“For sure, it ain’t no Islamic terrorist,” I joked.

“Ain’t nothing in this shitty skank ass town

worth the trouble of blowing up.”

 

* * *

 

We still ain’t recovered from that tornado

two years ago. The kids gone off to college

ain’t never coming back.  Tallahassee, Orlando,

Atlanta  – they got movie theaters and restaurants.

Their parks ain’t littered with them empty canisters

the teens been huffing on all night long.

 

* * *

 

I hear they hauled Jimmy down to Duval County.

He lost his dog and parrot, both burnt to a crisp,

that parrot that perched and shat on Jimmy’s shoulder,

like Jimmy was some long lost landlocked pirate.

“Arrggh,” Jimmy’d growl,” and the parrot’d go

“Arrggh” over and over. I swunny it got old.

 

I suspect Jimmy ain’t laughing right now,

and I know for sure the parrot ain’t,

and that dog won’t keep me up ever again

barking his chained-up ass off all night long.

 

Yep, the sun comes up, and the sun goes down,

And there’s one less loser in this podunk town.

4

Rachel Feldman

Oh, Leah, I’d resign tomorrow

if I could steel myself and endure

mom’s patronizing, smug, I-told-you-so,

but no, I’ll continue to slog my way

through this damned Despond of Despair,

continue to suffer our insufferable DA.

No, I’m good at least for one more year,

my own self-imposed sentence you might say.

 

It’s almost always drugs.  Smack, crack

meth, Ecstasy.  With the resources

we waste prosecuting weed, we could feed

so many food insecure kids.  We need

to get them out of those trailers

into pre-K if this unrelenting

cycle of poverty is ever to cease!

We’re talking Dorothea Lange like squalor here.

 

Let me tell you about these two clients of mine,

Jimmy Joshua Jeffcoat and Henry David Dobson,

as different as night and day, but in

a similar plight.  Unable to make their bail,

they share the same cell.  Jeffcoat’s a creep,

with pitted methadonic teeth.

Dobson, on the other hand, reads Oscar Wilde

and flashes a crooked grin of orthodontic white.

 

Jeffcoat’s doomed to serve at least seven,

if not more, but Dobson wants, as he says,

“a jury of my peers to decide.”  Who knows?

He’ kind of charismatic.  DOB 4/1/75.

He sports a full head of slicked back hair.

A ruddy face, creased, furrowed, but kind.

I’d say he’s suffered way too much sun,

and a few too many dark nights as well.

 

He calls me “Miss” in a formal sort of way,

and he’s practically tattooless, the only one

his dead son’s name, in between his fingers,

upside down from our perspective.

 

Yes, I guess he could be gay, though I hadn’t

thought of that.  But, yes, you’re right, the tat

is indeed a man’s name, and yes, Wilde, could be,

but if I had to bet, I’d bet he’s straight.

 

When this gig’s over, I’ll bugaloo back

to Boca, having done my time.

Might go to grad school, SCAD, get an MFA

in photography.  I’ve learned being a lawyer

is not for me.  Should have listened to my

heart instead of my mom.  Oh, sure, she’s proud

of what’s she made of me, my Ivy League degree,

her youngest brand name of a daughter.

5

Bobby Lee Thornhill

“Please help me help yourself,” my PD said.

“A little remorse could go a long, long way.

Even if you don’t really feel it,

Try feigning it, you know, like an actor in a play?”

 

“No ma’am, I can’t.  I won’t.  In fact,

I’d love to kill him all over again.

Watch him jump when I pump

them shells in place, watch his face go white,

them tiny rodent eyes terrified

as I suggest he pray –

“Boom – “before he can mutter ‘Our Father’ – boom –

bits of brain and skull splattering

sticking to the concrete block wall behind.

 

“No ma’am, remorseful I am not.”

 

Some icy thing shot up her spine,

like she was looking at Satan himself.

 

“It’s cause what he done to that

little girl,”  I said.

 

She shivered again

and crossed her hands across her chest.

6

Henry David Dobson

When I put my hand upon that bible

(its old leather cover was cracked),

I wondered how many hands, both black and white,

were as steady as mine taking that oath.

 

I slowly raised my right hand and swore

to tell the truth, the whole truth,

nothing but the truth – so help me God.

I said it as if the Lord was as real as you and me.

I looked each juror softly in the eye,

the way Jesus might, if he was on trial.

 

* * *

 

They claimed I had to know the 4  kilos

were hidden in those bags, mashed

under wads of dirty clothes.

 

“No, sir, I did not,” I said. “I swear,

I did not know, would have hid

them better if I had.”

 

The fat man snarled; his sarcasm dripped,

“We’re supposed to believe you didn’t look?”

“No sir,  I don’t believe in snooping

through other people’s property.”

The fat man lost his cool, sensing he might lose,

raised his voice, “What about the smell?

The patrolmen could smell it, the K-9s went wild.”

 

I sighed an exhausted sigh and said,

“With all due respect, sir, I’m no dog;

plus I lost me some olfactory in the Iraqi war.

You can check my records on that,” I said.

 

* * *

 

My PD, she played a role as well,

was less a Yankee, more of a good ol’ gal.

She appealed to the jury’s sense of fair play.

 

“Let us hope,” she said, hand on heart,

“we have not come to that sad day

when we’re so cynical

we ‘re incapable of

mustering a reasonable doubt

in favor of a fellow human being.

“He could be your brother or son.

Let us hope we can still manage

to muster a reasonable doubt.”

 

* * *

 

There’s nothing quite like getting out of jail.

You feel so free it’s almost worth

getting locked up to get out again.

You look up and see clouds overhead,

and in your car with the windows rolled down,

you can feel the wind blow back your hair

as you bid adieu to that goddamned town.

You’re free to take this road or that,

free to head north, south, east, or west,

free to holler a rebel yell – you’re free again –

on ’95 headed south to Key West.

I Can’t, I Won’t

Image

Click the grey arrow above for sound.

 

“Please help me help yourself,” my PD said.

“A little remorse could go a long, long way.

Even if you don’t really feel it,

Try feigning it, you know, like an actor in a play?”

 

“No ma’am, I can’t.  I won’t.  In fact,

I’d love to kill him all over again.

Watch him jump when I pump

them shells in place, watch his face go white,

them tiny rodent eyes terrified

as I suggest he pray –

 

“Boom – “before he can mutter ‘Our Father’ – boom –

bits of brain and skull splattering,

sticking to the concrete block behind.

 

“No ma’am, remorseful I am not.”

 

Some icy thing shot up her spine,

like she was looking at Satan himself.

 

“It’s cause what he done to that

little girl,”  I said.

 

She shivered again

and crossed her hands across her chest.

As Others See Us

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us! – Robert Burns “To a Louse”

In January and February of 2000, David Foster Wallace, hailed by AO Scott as the best mind of his generation, rode along with John McCain and Company on the Straight Talk Express as he campaigned in South Carolina for the 2000 Republican nomination.  In his essay “Up Simba,” DFW offers his analysis of the campaign and occasional descriptions of our countryside, architecture, and denizens.  Here’s a description of a trip down I-26 from Spartanburg to Charleston:

Coming back up the Bullshit 1’s starboard side, no laptops are in play and no windowshades pulled, and the cleanest set of windows is just past the fridge, and outside surely the sun is someplace up there but the February vista still seems lightless. The central-SC countryside looks blasted, lynched, the skies the color of low-grade steel, the land all dead sod and broomsedge, with scrub oak and pine leaning at angles, and you can almost hear the mosquitoes breathing in their baggy eggs awaiting spring. Winter down here is damp, both chilly and muggy, and Jay alternates the heater with the AC as various different people bitch about being hot or cold. Scraggly cabbage palms start mixing with the pine as you get farther south, and the mix of conifer and palm is dissonant in a bad-dream sort of way. A certain percentage of the passing trees are dead and hung with kudzu and a particular kind of Spanish moss that resembles a kind of drier-lint from hell, but in a very nice way. Eighteen-wheelers and weird tall pickups are the buses’ only company, and the pickups are rusted and all have gunracks and frightening bumper stickers; some of them toot their horns in support. BSl’s windows are high enough that you can see right into the big rigs’ cabs. The highway itself is colorless and the sides of it look chewed on, and there’s litter, and the median strip is dead grass with a whole lot of different tiretracks and skidmarks striping the sod for dozens of miles, as if from the mother of all multivehicle pileups sometime in I-26’s past. Everything looks dead and not happy about it. Birds fly in circles with no place to go. There are also some weird smooth-barked luminous trees that might be pecan; no one seems to know. The techs keep their shades pulled even though they have no laptops. You can tell it’s spooky down here in the summer, all moss and steam and dogs with visible ribs and everybody sweating through their hat. None of the media ever look out the window. Everyone’s used to being in motion all the time. Location is mentioned only on phones: the journalists and producers are always on their cellphones trying to reach somebody else’s cellphone and saying “South Carolina—where are you.” The other constant in most cell-calls on a moving bus is “I’m losing you, can you hear me, should I call back.” A distinctive thing about the field producers is that they all pull their cellphones’ antennae all the way out with their teeth; journalists use their fingers, or else they have headset phones, which they talk on while they type.

If you think that was a bit negative, here’s a peek at the Lobby of the Carolina Ice Palace from his perspective:

Express hauled out this morning at 0738h., and now here McCain is at 0822 almost running back and forth on the raised stage in a Carolina Ice Palace lobby so off-the-charts hideous that the press all pass up the free pastry. (The lobby’s lined with red and blue rubber—yes, rubber—and 20 feet up a green iron spiral staircase is an open mezzanine with fencing of mustard-colored pipe from which hang long purple banners for the Lowcountry Youth Hockey Association, and you can hear the rink’s organ someplace inside and a symphony of twitters and boings from an enormous video arcade just down the bright-orange hall, and on either side of the THM stage are huge monitors composed of nine identical screens arrayed 3 x 3, and the monitor on the left has nine identical McCain faces talking but the one on the right has just one big McCain face cut into nine separate squares, and every ft2of the nauseous lobby is occupied by wildly supportive South Carolinians, and it’s 95º at least, and the whole thing is so sensuously assaultive that all the media except Jim C. and the techs turn around and listen facing away, most drinking more than one cup of coffee at once).

These descriptions brought to mind Robert Burns poem “To a Louse” :

Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her-
Sae fine a lady?
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

Swith! in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whaur horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rels, snug and tight;
Na, faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right,
Till ye’ve got on it-
The verra tapmost, tow’rin height
O’ Miss’ bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an’ grey as ony groset:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I’d gie you sic a hearty dose o’t,
Wad dress your droddum.

I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit dubbie boy,
On’s wyliecoat;
But Miss’ fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do’t?

O Jeany, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin:
Thae winks an’ finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

A Hank Williams Villanelle

Click the grey arrow above for sound.

I say, ‘do like I say, not like I do’ –

“Sneaking Up Early on Miller Time.”

Now there’s a country title for you.

 

If you want to ‘scape what I been through –

same ol’, same ol, time after time –

I say, ‘do like I say and not like I do.’

 

Swap out that pint of Ol’ Crow for Betty Sue.

“Sinning Don’t Cause the Sun to Shine” –

now there’s a country title for you

 

courtesy of Mr. Honky Tonk Blues,

Mr. Living Hundred Proof, Mr. Vodka and Lime.

I say, ‘do like I say, not like I do,’

 

or you’re bound the coming days to rue.

“Being Alive Ain’t No Capital Crime” –

now there’s a country title for you.

 

Keep up that doping, and you’ll end up screwed,

dying in the backseat before your time.

I say, “Do Like I Say, Not Like I Do’ –

Now there’s a country song for you.

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Local Souls

Thirty years ago when I gave fiction a half-assed serious stab, I managed to get selected by Blanche McCrary Boyd to participate in a writing workshop sponsored by the SC Arts Commission. Of the dozen or so participants, more than a few would go on to publish novels or short story collections – Josephine Humphreys, Lee McAden Robinson, William Baldwin, Starkey Flythe, Jr., Harlan Greene, and Stephen Hoffius. When we met each week, Boyd read aloud one of our stories or excerpts (she didn’t provide us copies), and, afterwards, she led us in offering critiques. Harlan Greene and Josephine Humphreys, if I remember correctly, had had novels accepted that had not quite come out yet. When Boyd read aloud from the galleys of Humphreys’s Dreams of Sleep, I suddenly caught a malodorous whiff of my own amateur rankness. Here’s the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

Before they wake, sunlight is on the house, moving on the high east wall and window through old glass as wavy as broken water, onto the hard bright floor of waxed pine. When Alice opens her eyes, she sees its cool path stamped by the window of mullions, squares stretching to rhomboids of clear fall sun. Will sleeps behind her, his breath wisping her back. She loves the quiet of light and its mutable geometry, as those wizards did who chinked and slit their stones to let in messages from sun gods. The message to Alice is, Don’t move. Not till that first stamp of light touches the wide crack in the floorboards. 

Of course, we all heaped – BM Boyd especially – heavy praise on that first chapter; however, perhaps feeling obligated to find at least one thing negative to say, Blanche conjectured that the prose might be “too gorgeous.” I guess she meant that the sonorousness of the prose might distract the reader from the story – the way that occasionally an overwritten passage by Pat Conroy can bump your attention from the action of the narrative to its making. However, Humphrey’s prose is the opposite of distracting. The auditory patterns of her sentences provide a sort of soundtrack that augments their sharp cinematic images – for example, the perfect iambs of who chinked and slit their stones echo the methodical tap tap tap of hammer on chisel. 

Brett Lott makes a similar criticism of Alan Gurganus’s new book Local Souls, three novellas set in the fictional North Carolina town of Falls, one of the featured locales of Gurganus’s wonderful first novel The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All. Brett Lott contends that “too often [Gurganus’s] sentences become cryptically twisted, sacrificing sense for sound” as “he strain[s] to make sure we know he hasn’t lost his Southern touch.” Lott goes on to complain, “The effect is that while the language juggles for us center stage, the drama here — and there’s plenty of it — becomes subservient, eclipsed by the earnest regionalism of it all.”

Certainly, Lott isn’t talking about the prose of the first novella, “Fear Not,” a millennial Southern Gothic page turner that features decapitation, pedophilia, and incest in the Age of “Goggling” and “JPEGs.” Framed by a prologue “Overture” and an epilogue “Curtains Down,” the narrative is the “novellaization” of a strange and perverse local tragedy. Attending a high school production of Sweeney Todd featuring his goddaughter, a writer, “becalmed and itchy between novels,” finds himself seated between his “dearest friend and two hot strangers.”

After the play, his friend tells him about the couple, who might well have been the bastard great great grandchildren of Miss Emily Grierson and Homer Barron. The novelist decides to take on dramatizing the story, “swear[ing] to God at least 81% of it is true.”

Here, is the fifth paragraph of his rendering of the couple’s history:

And visible from this pastel beach, a weekend captain of one twenty-two-foot Chris-Craft loses sight of the water skier he’s pulling two hundred yards out into the lake. (One red nylon towline just got tangled on a log twelve feet underwater). The towed guy leaves his yellow skis to float, plunges under waves to free his line. The fourteen-year-old daughter of the man about to die, she sunbathes face-up. In a row of girlfriends, she rests on heated sand detergent white.

In the last sentence, we do have some unusual syntax “heated sand detergent white”; however, this Latinate construction strikes me more as Miltonic than Southern (we call “guys” “fellows”), and I would argue that the phrase’s slight tinge of the archaic is well-suited to the content of a tale that smacks of legend; “Fear Not” is ultimately a nightmarish fairy tale with a perversely happy ending. The all too prevalent pedestrian prose of MFA factories wouldn’t do it justice. 

In the second novella, “Saints Have Mothers,” Gurganus shifts to the first person to tell the story of a doting but resentful mother, Jean, and her self-righteous know-it-all superstar of a daughter, Caitlin. Our narrator, once promising poet, abandoned her literary ambitions for marriage and childbearing, and with her to-be-ex husband produced a child prodigy, Caitlin, who, to echo Ben Jonson, embodies Jean’s “best piece of poetry.”

17 year-old Caitlin – brilliant, entitled, pathologically idealistic – is half St. Francis, half Katie Couric, at once selfless and resume-building. The timbre of Jean’s narration conjures a sense of tragic inevitability as a poem Caitlin has written about homelessness wins her a summer internship in Africa. We suffer foreshadowing after foreshadowing suggesting that doom awaits. Think Lear with his diminishing entourage, Lincoln taking his seat in the theatre.

Here, you see, I am setting up the part where the phone actually does ring at three a.m. By then Caitlin had been in Africa just under two months, forty nine days. – This particular night, the twins are sound asleep. I’m feeling feverish even as I dream how my daughter is just out spreading good cheers across downtown falls. I’m dreaming that Cait is due back any minute, that all will be well. The phone starts so loud.

Once again, I find nothing particularly “cryptically twisted” or particularly Southern about the prose of “Saints Have Mothers.” In fact, throughout all three of the novellas, there’s a downright paucity of y’alls. Our narrator Jean is a quirky woman with occasional quirky turns of phrase, but, after all, she’s had a poem published in the Atlantic. Here she is describing daughter Caitlin delivering a patronizing hug

UH-OH. ONE NUBILE (sic) female rests across me. She is trying to mask me. She cannot know how bones and boyish her hips feel sunk into my over-ample sponge-blob ones. She lifts the coarse veil to frame my face. It slips. Cait is planning a major hug, or worse, a kiss, a spirit makeover I don’t need. Success-oriented as any young Ivy exec, she will not be stopped. Foil cloth covers my one eye then both. The cloth now tastes, a toxic net.

No complaints about that prose here.

When Lott criticizes the Gurganus’s “Southern touch,” he’s probably thinking principally of “Decoy,” a haunting, brilliantly compressed bi-generational minor masterpiece. The narrator Bill Mabry, the grandson of sharecroppers, has been transplanted as a boy from country red clay to the topsoil of Falls, seemingly genteel (but remember “Fear Not” above).   

Actually, the narrative spans close to four generations from Bill’s father Red (imagined as a boy by his son in “denim coveralls, red hair looking like his one cash crop, probably open-mouthed with pleasure”) to his two own children “son: (Haverford, Sanford ) and daughter (Middlebury, Baylor)” and his five-year-old grandson who complains that kindergarten is “Boring [. . .] Always the same. Milk, cookies, cookies, milk.”

Here is the time-honored American dream of ascent; however, for narrator Bill, the transition from “a rabbit-box of country shack” to his antique-filled river home has had its challenges. Like many Southerners, our narrator has an acute ear for the sounds of words (and the beauty of vowels), but, do lawd, he calls his mama Mom! Note in the paragraph that follows that he’s filtering his prose through the consciousness of his daddy, blending his college-educated diction with his father’s 8th grade dropout rural North Carolina vernacular.

This son of sharecropping had never glimpsed lawns acres wide. Of no silage value. Hell, you couldn’t even bail stuff this short to feed your poppa’s cattle. Grass here meant to be a kind of moat. It would keep your white house hid-back awninged in blue eye shadow.

I ain’t kidding, I have friends who talk like this – Jake Williams and Furman Langley come to mind. They sing self-made-up songs like “The Hurry Curry Casserole Blues” or “I Was Standing by the River When I Seen My Savior There.” If you’re telling a story, alliteration helps; if you draw out a vowel for effect, you’re underscoring. I’m an auditory reader, though. I hear words when I read silently. I love it when they make music that’s not overdone.

For me, Gurganus’s prose is nearly pitch perfect. I rarely reread contemporary novels, but I’m going to reread this one so I can pick up cross references among the three novellas to fully appreciate its Winesberg, Ohio, effect.