Published on June 30th, 2022 | by Conor Hultman0
Book Reviews by Conor Hultman: “Sleepovers” by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
Hub City Press ($16.95)
Available at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi
The stories in Sleepovers take place in an environment I know well: trailer parks, lower suburban sprawl, underfunded public schools, a region of the deep South where churches and corporate chains play gentle competition for land. What Ashleigh Bryant Phillips has done for these places is bring them into focus as amphitheaters for voices. Yearning and tragedy and heroic attitudes are squeezed out of the mundane, and people like people you have known are blown up into human constellations. Of the latest in the exquisite Southern literary heritage (Wolfe’s dream-like memory, Wright’s frustrated natural realism, Welty’s adulation of the word), Phillips is a writer to pay close attention to.
For starters, these stories have a satyr-like sense of humor, often from the first line. An inventory of first lines:
“You don’t know if you were born wrong or if it’s because on the way home from the hospital there was a big storm and your daddy wrecked the car and your mama dropped you in the floorboard.”
“When me and Sister were little Uncle Elmer took us to Wendy’s because they have the biggest senior citizen discount, and we didn’t know what that meant, but somehow, we knew that meant cheap because this was a word he loved to say: cheap.”
“Hope’s sitting at work, her daddy’s septic tank business.”
“Joanie had a cousin with braces and a cousin that was slow and those two cousins were sisters.”
And as should be apparent in these lines, Phillips uses a strong vernacular technique to fix her characters in your memory. In a language unique but familiar, whose ingredients might be our Southern brogue and argot mixed with good old-fashioned European psychological writing, these characters talk about how hard it is to love, and how much harder to stay alive.
I would be tempted to let all the crayons out of the box, for how colorful they are; there’s the story about the handicapped office supplies salesman, the one about the uppity Yankee teacher, about the girl who throws hot soup on her mother, the woman who finds acceptance at an old folks’ home…but I need you to buy and read this book. I will only talk about one story, my favorite story.
“Snowball Jr.” is a crystalline-perfect example of metaphoric writing, up there with Kafka. It starts with, “When I was a deer I was a doe. My mother pushed me out, nuzzling a great oak tree. It was spring.” What follows is a couple of transcendent pages that have the potency of a novel, where reincarnation, trauma-denial, and association battle in the reader’s mind for interpretation, leaving one bewildered in that way that only canonical poems seem to do.
If you have any interest in Southern writing, you will have to read this book, if not now, after it is taught next to Jesmyn Ward and George Saunders. Best read it sooner.