Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips

I read this book for its structure: a short story collection with some longer pieces, of as many as 20 pages, but a number of shorter ones, just a page or two. With my advisor this semester, Jessie van Eerden, I am considering a similar structure for my thesis: interstitial pieces in among long ones. (I also read Jessie’s own thesis from her MFA program, which was awfully wonderful and I wish I could review it here for you! Also with the interstitial pieces, and so lovely. But as it’s not published, I guess I’ll leave it at that.) I was also glad to read Jayne Anne Phillips because she is important to West Virginia’s literary legacy. And she is from Buckhannon, where my own West Virginia Wesleyan College is located.

This is a beautiful and impressive collection in its effect. I found myself lost and involved in each story, one of those reading experiences where you forget where you are, look up baffled by the everyday world around you, thinking you were really in a dark bar in El Paso or walking the streets of an unnamed town decades ago. This effect makes it hard for me to analyze the craft of the book itself, but it is certainly to be admired. While these stories are, I think, unconnected, they share themes: the types of characters and the types of settings are all rough-hewn and struggling. Dwight Garner’s review in The New York Times calls these “lush, violent, elegiac and sexually charged worlds,” and he writes that this book “would help light the landscape of the so-called dirty realists (Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Richard Ford, Phillips and others), though the adhesive has pretty much come off that label.” I am turning to Garner’s words in part because this book so challenged me, and in part because I love that idea, the adhesive coming off the label.

Here is menace, violence, and sex, a good amount of it menacing and violent sex. It’s about loneliness and despair and the odd, quiet contentment. I’m not sure what to think, actually. And as to my original reason for reading Black Tickets – to examine its structure – I’m a bit lost, too. I would say the shorter stories contributed to the overall themes, tone, impression that make this book so strong. So did the longer ones.

How different is a story collection from an essay collection? What explains my difficulty here? If I find out, I’ll let you know.


Rating: 7 Ripple bottles.

2 Responses

  1. “…interstitial pieces in among long ones.”

    This sort of thing can work very well (as in, for example, In Our Time). I think stories (and books) find their own shape if we let them.

    There are commercial considerations in terms of form and length, but I think it’s a problem to start from that.

    (Well, I have a friend who has been a professional writer since 1972 — he’s earned the right to disagree, as I’m sure he would.)

    • I agree with you, mostly, but I’m sure your friend’s wisdom is true, as well… happily (?) this thesis is not especially trying to be a commercial book, so I’m free from those concerns for now! 🙂

      In Our Time is a good example. I haven’t thought about that one in some time now. Thanks.

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