If you like Ellen Gilchrist, then you will gladly welcome her newest collection, The Cabal and Other Stories. Prepare to be hypnotized by long evening walks in the Mississippi Delta, manic cross-country road trips, homemade vanilla ice cream in silver bowls, passion, silliness, and mystery. The Cabal, a novella that makes up the bulk of the book, concerns a powerful group of people in Jackson, Mississippi, who must face the threat that their psychiatrist is about to go raving mad and spill their secrets. The novella introduces realistic yet extraordinary characters that reappear in later stories. The final story, The Big Cleanup, is another welcomed account of the eminently Southern Miss Crystal by her maid, the wise and witty Tracleen.
There is no doubt that Gilchrist is a master storyteller. She's written 15 other books and secured the National Book Award in 1985 for another inventive collection of stories, Victory Over Japan.
What makes this most recent collection sparkle is Gilchrist's ability to create characters that work like parts of a well-oiled machine. When immersed in one of her smoothly operating tales, one gets the sense of rapid motion a sure sign of a well-crafted, efficient style. The book teems with a glamorous array an angry 60-year-old actress, her 29-year-old lover, a handsome gay college professor, a whiny and desperate Hollywood producer, a dashing neurosurgeon, and lots of drunk southern housewives to boot!Gilchrist immerses the reader so deeply in the characters' thoughts and intriguing interactions that she is able to craftily seduce us into absorbing the absurd. This passage is from the end of The Cabal : They were all glad to wait. Waiting to see if Celia had the power to make a neurosurgeon in Memphis give up his weekend to save them from their psychiatrist was definitely worth missing an extra hour of listening to ancient black men play songs about poverty and alcoholism and loss. By the end, when everything has come together, or at least, ended, the reader can look back on the stories and see the characters turning and clicking like the inside of a clock that makes time move forward. Absurdity comes clear and a feeling of freshness lingers.
Amy Ryce is a writer in Nashville.