Reading Clarinda Harriss’s fiction is like reading another version of Laura Lippman’s and Anne Tyler’s Baltimores mixed up together, from the genteel dilapidation of old Baltimore to the dangerous underbelly of the city’s streets. The White Rail is a slender volume, precious as a poetry collection, consisting of six stories, all set in Baltimore or nearby.
Harriss is first and foremost a poet, and her stories brim with a love of language, the sound of it, spoken by her characters (“Sista, you got some junk in yo trunk,” a random voice says in “The Vinegar Drunker.); the sounds of words together (“…lesbian sex poems whose I’s and S’s send the readers’ tongues licking and lapping lie lascivious lovers.”); she wallows gleefully in their rhymes, their rhythms, the derivation and evolution of words. Indeed, two of the stories, “In the House” and “Bone to Bone,” might accurately be said to be about poetry. In both, Harriss considers the tension between the everyday street rhythms of spoken language and the metric requirements of formal verse. “Bone to Bone,” a weird tale of “identity theft” regarding a Pulitzer Prize-winning black female poet, highlights the tension between vernacular poetry, its jazz rhythms, off-rhymes, and the formal verse structures of the traditions of English literature, Elizabethan sonnets, Metaphysical poetry, etc. “In the House” might be characterized as doing the same, but with regard to Emily Dickinson and African-American poets.
This poetic theme runs throughout the stories. Quotations from hot sonneteers sprinkle “The Vinegar Drinker” as if ingredients in a recipe the protagonist Simone is preparing. Melissa, the protagonist of “Hot Water Piggie Blues,” reads Poetry magazine in her hot tub and quotes Meg Swenson. Alone in her Guilford hot tub, dreamy Melissa meditates on a Swenson poem entitled “Blue,” and in three beautiful sub-sections of the story – “Huge Blue,” “Hot Blue” and “Ruin Blue” – Harriss writes with poetic contemplation about the poetic meanings and implications of the color blue, culminating in an observation on “milky blue-green – the strange, lovely color of dilapidation and ruin,” a lovely image that gives us insight into the character’s psyche but at the same time reminds us of Harriss’ gifts of language.
As all this might suggest, the real tension in these stories comes from the clash of cultures among these mostly Baltimore characters – racial, social, class, age and gender differences that bring the characters together – and keep them apart. Indeed, the title, The White Rail, refers to the nickname for the mass transit light rail system that black people ride to and from their service jobs out in the suburbs, a symbol of the shabby disparities afflicting the servant class. This is explained in the first story, “The Vinegar Drinker,” a hilarious tale about a woman who writes erotic cookbooks and markets them via softcore performances. At one point, interacting with the mostly black public outside the defunct department store in downtown Baltimore where she is giving a funny X-rated cooking demo, Simone reminds herself of the dangers of “trying to talk black,” the implicit disrespect. (Ironically, the black protagonist of “Bone to Bone,” Florence Roland, has to teach her self, in college, “how to talk like a Negro.”)
“Lady in the Next Bed” is told in the ghetto dialect of a homeless black woman who shares a hospital room with a well-to-do neurotic white woman whose mother has a sense of noblesse oblige. In “Vinyl Recliner” and “Hot Water Piggie Blues” the class differences involve middleclass white women and underclass white men. “In the House” is a story about a black prison inmate and the elderly white homosexual college professor with whom he shares an appreciation of Emily Dickinson.
In all of these stories, it feels like the distances between the characters are just too immense to be bridged. Often, by the end, they ultimately can’t be, which is more or less the point. Take the deliciously ambiguous ending to “Hot Water Piggie Blues,” just as Melissa is preparing to marry her fiancé, with whom she has serious disagreements.
“You going to do it?” whispered the homeless man rising from behind the clump of boxwood. “You really going to do it tomorrow?” Melissa opened her eyes and stretched her toes on the ledge and nodded. “Why don’t I just fix that right now,” the homeless man said. Melissa closed her eyes as soon a she saw him reach into the dead chrysanthemums where the pruning shears hid. She kept them closed. She pointed her big toe like a dancer. Waited to see what he was going to fix, and how.
Harriss has a marvelous sense of the comic. Simone Stiles, the sexy protagonist of “The Vinegar Drinker,” is a brainy gentile woman involved with her married Jewish manager (talk about unbridgeable distance); her life seems as haphazard as a Lucille Ball madcap comedy. We learn how, born Nancy Meeks, she came to adopt her new name, why she dropped out of a doctoral program at Johns Hopkins with her degree virtually in sight, the way her successful cookbook-writing career took off, almost by accident. In her mid-thirties, Simone is looking for direction. Does she find it?
Similarly, the unnamed protagonist of “Vinyl Recliner,” a somewhat ditzy Writer-in-Residence at a fictional private college in southern Maryland, finds herself in a relationship with a much younger, volatile, violent student (“Crazy Angel”) who might just be a candidate for the Unabomber (at the time Ted Kaczynski has not yet been captured) but through another haphazard series of events so like a madcap comedy is able to help her injured mother.
Until I met Crazy Angel’s people I never thought a family like that could exist outside a bad sitcom. I never thought o much yelling and physical battery could fit into a house the size of theirs. I never thought people really had recliners like that in their houses. So many things I never thought, before Crazy Angel.
Clarinda Harriss addresses serious issues, both social and literary, in the six stories in The White Rail (even the title contains an implicit rebuke), but overall the reader comes away with a sense of an affirmation of people and language.