In Mending (Sarabande Books, $23.00), the new collection of short stories by Sallie Bingham, the title story opens with a character “on Fifth Avenue in the middle fall.” The character notes that the apartment buildings “stand like pyramids in the sunlight.” Everything sparkles and seems new, but our character doesn’t quite realize she’s an outsider. She only realizes she’s different, and that her life is unsettled: “I was nineteen,” she tells us. “Too old to be educated, too young to be employed.” And so we first encounter the characters that populate Mending, and we’re introduced to the vulnerability that comes from residing in an unsettled space.
The stories in the collection were created over a period of nearly fifty years (three stories come from The Touching Hand, published in 1967), and the extended time span is easily palpable to the reader. The nostalgic atmosphere doesn’t lean too heavily on period details either; in “Winter Term,” the reader hardly needs the anachronistic card catalog to clue him in to the fact that this world has passed. The language ripens and blooms with the sentiments of another time: “Hal remembered how surprised he had been when they first danced together and she had pulled close; the action did not suit the mild, high-necked dress she was wearing, or even the coolness of her cheek.” This kind of fiction seems rare these days, indeed. The combination of the wistful implications of what has passed and the varied, sometimes exotic settings remind the reader of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American or The End of the Affair. Though delicate, the sensibility of Mending doesn’t come off as prudish. We never feel as if the world of fifty years ago lacks the sordid side of humanity, but the nostalgia conjured in these pages never appears without a profound sense of loss, as explicitly detailed in “Selling the Farm:” “The long rolling cornfield that had bristled with dry stalks at this time of year had been leveled. The bulldozers, having finished their work for the day, were drawn up in a row, bright yellow and massive along the side of the old tenant’s cottage. It was falling down.”
Bingham’s characters often find themselves caught between the real and the imagined. In “Anywhere You Send Me,” a woman greets the reader with the first line: “They came before I was ready, but how could I ever have been ready?” We then discover that she’s waiting to receive a family of Haitian refugees whom she has agreed to host; we know at once that she could have been better prepared, but never prepared enough. This play between what we expect and what we receive returns time and again throughout this collection and scores one of its major conflicts. We plan for something, and the planning is important and necessary, yes, but it’s not ever going to supply adequate preparation for the all the slings and arrows we encounter in daily life. Nor does it seem to inform the personal connections that Bingham’s characters just miss between one another, as when the refugee family comes across the grave of their benefactor’s murdered daughter, and they begin to suspect the true source of their hostess’s benefaction. The impetus for her generous act obviously lies somewhere within her tragic past, and yet whenever the chance surfaces to achieve a visceral, human connection, the protagonist retreats and her defenses go back up as when she speaks: “By the time we drove them back to their house for lunch, I’d entered that numb shade where I’d lived for two years.”
In the same way that Bingham’s characters don’t quiet realize that they’re just missing each other, they also don’t seem to realize that they were outsiders until they’ve been assimilated. In fact, the epiphanal realizations, such as those in “Mending” and in “Found,” serve more to relate than to estrange, but in a Groucho Marx kind of way, where the self-realization carries with it a clearer and more somber sense of the world. For example, in “Found,” a diplomat and his family are sent to live in post World War II France. The children must attend the local schools: “’You are all citizens of the world, now,’ their mother had announced.” The reader gets quickly keyed into the pain this unmooring causes; the main character, a young girl, is mocked at school and is abandoned by her driver while at the dentist. She realizes she doesn’t belong in France and that she doesn’t understand, but again, the realization anchors her as she taps into her own strength and determination: “I will stubbornly stay until I find all the words and all the connections and all the rules of the game.” When she tells us: “I will stay here until I understand,” we know she’s going to be okay. It is precisely this acknowledgement of not understanding her outside world that convinces us that she is aware enough to learn what she needs to fully be part of her new life.
Similarly, when our original character returns to New York after an absence, she tells us that “the pyramids on Fifth Avenue were no longer shining. The gutters were running with filth and melted snow.” It seems paradoxical that this scene should inspire hope, but it does. It signals the birth of an awareness, of a transformation into something both worldly and resilient. These transformations make Bingham’s characters human, likeable, and compelling, and her skillfully rendered settings evoke a time that has only just passed. We are swept along in the setting, in the story. It is only later, after we have finished reading, that we realize how much these characters will linger with us.