Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Tracking the Races

By Leonard Gill and James Busbee

FEBRUARY 2, 1998: 

Crabcakes

By James Alan McPherson

Simon & Schuster, 280 pp., $23


Twenty years have passed since James Alan McPherson won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Elbow Room. That’s 20 years spent teaching, mostly at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and writing, mostly essays and short stories. During that time, he was also inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1981, awarded what now outweighs even a Pulitzer: a MacArthur.

Crabcakes is McPherson’s return to book-length form and a memoir (contrary to its jacket’s summary) with little or nothing to do with any or all the above. What it does have to do with – and evenly divides into – are two background events brought to front-rank importance by an author who seems to have also spent the past 20 years in focused retreat and close to or in fact suffering periodic breakdowns.

The first of these events was McPherson’s purchase of a house in Baltimore in 1976, which he rented, against mounting losses, to a kind and aged black woman, Channie Washington, and a certain Mr. Butler. The second event, years later and in Iowa, was his missing a promised appointment with a visiting couple from Japan and his subsequent failure to explain to them adequately just why. Those breakdowns (if indeed that’s what they were) are twice barely referred to here as “hospitalizations,” nothing more.

Better, according to these pages, to have hospitalized the whole country and put it in the care of community-minded Japan, because the first half of Crabcakes is McPherson’s attempt to make sense of very uncommunity-minded America. That attempt employs all manner of narrative modes (some of them very mannered) as evidence, and in the experience of the author, that evidence ties to race. The greater his evidence, though, the more you may wonder whether the tension has led McPherson to snap.

Iowa offers the author relief and, in the company of a neighboring family, restores McPherson’s trust in simple fellow feeling. But it’s his friendships among the Japanese and their ritual regard for others (beyond the boundaries of race) that occupy Crabcakes’ intensely introspective, highly learned second half. In what must be one of more protracted self-examinations this side of Rousseau, McPherson expresses his shame, across 150 pages, for the rudeness he showed the Japanese couple mentioned above and offers up his own accounting of that missed appointment as a form of apology. You can take these pages as a primer in ancient philosophy (Far Eastern and Western), as an instruction manual in “correct” behavior, or as a psychoanalytic case history. The performance, however you take it, is as difficult to recommend as it is to ignore. – Leonard Gill


Winter Money

By Andy Plattner

University of Georgia Press, 157 pp., $22.95


Winter Money is a fine new collection of short stories from Andy Plattner about the business of horse racing, and it’s a gray book. The cover’s gray, the characters are drawn in shades of gray, and the stories all take place under the same gray pall of low clouds and cold winter winds. All the characters in the book navigate the same desperate circuit of low-rent tracks in places like Birmingham, Detroit, and West Virginia.

Winter Money has no thrilling tales of photo finishes or gamblers banking it all on a long shot. The book is populated by racing’s fringe characters – failed jockeys, naive groomers, world-weary trainers, and bankrupt horse-owners. The people in these stories run the same circles as their horses, only the odds against them winning are far longer. Everyone is hoping for a big score, the end-of-season payoff – “winter money” – that will take them to warmer climes, where races are run all year long.

The men and women in Winter Money hang with each other as long as the horses are running strong. And when things go bad, they go bad in a hurry: “There was one rule to racing relationships: you grew tired, you moved on.” In Winter Money, love has all the value of a racing form – essential one week, clutter the next.

Plattner’s prose tends toward the functional rather than the flowery. Many of the stories don’t really come to any conclusion; they just stop. It’s like watching a horse stumbling along 30 lengths back of the leaders. You know where it’s going to finish, so you turn away and hope it ends soon.

Two of the stories merit further mention. “Collector” is a wrenching story of futile longing; the narrator must take the cocktail waitress his older brother has gotten pregnant to an abortion clinic. After the procedure, these two strangers sit in a cold car, holding each other and watching the horses run.

The narrator of “Chandelier” is one of the last small-time Kentucky horsemen to get rid of his final horse. (The title refers to the chandeliers that once adorned the stables of temporarily rich horsemen.) Just before selling the horse, he makes an agonizing, fatal mistake, and must leave his beloved horse dead in a field.

Plattner, a winner of the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction, has staked out his turf with authority. Winter Money marks him as a writer to watch. – James Busbee


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