Review: Beth Gilstrap's I Am Barbarella
by Kayla Rae Whitaker
February 2015 | $12.95
I AM BARBARELLA by Beth Gilstrap
Twleve Winters Press, 2015
Beth Gilstrap’s I Am Barbarella (Twelve Winters Press, 2015) opens with a Carson McCullers quote: “I am not meant to be alone, and without you, who understands.” References to McCullers, she of the ruined liver and ruinous talent, have become shorthand for a particular type of character in fiction – southern, literate (emotionally and otherwise), and fatalistic, in possession of a certain dark humor that wears, as its underbelly, a cruel understanding of the ephemeral nature of happiness and its brother, contentment.
One could well consider McCullers, in her embrace of both human perversity and kindness, to be a sort of beneficent mamaw to the work of Gilstrap. Barbarella follows characters of a type McCullers would recognize and appreciate. Like those of McCullers, Gilstrap’s characters are both self-consciously southern and self-consciously flawed, with raw-boned vulnerability and a penchant for chemical dependency. And Gilstrap, in her first collection, is just as compulsively readable. Even when it hurts.
The collection’s most satisfying swath is the linked body of stories from the world of Janine, a young woman from a fractured Charlotte, North Carolina family. Janine’s family members step in and out of the stories, sometimes peripheral, other times center stage: Janine, a lesbian struggling to find her place in conservative Charlotte; her best friend Maddie, deserted by her husband and fighting to make a living; and her mother, Loretta, who works with little success to make amends to Janine for abandoning her as a child to travel the country with a metal band. Loretta’s musings on her past is emblematic of the grief found in these stories: genuine and scuffed in all the right places. “These boys don’t expect me to take care of them,” she reflects of said metal band. “I’ll fall into their fold and I’ll be tucked deep until we reach our caustic end. God knows it’ll be bitter. Anything but would be a shining miracle.”
Loretta is just the beginning. There is a warm, inclusive style throughout, rich with the inflection of real lives being lived and the wry, sad humor that accompanies hangovers. When a lover claims to want, when he dies, “a funeral pyre. On a boat. A beautiful woman to shoot a flaming arrow at my carcass,” Loretta responds with, “Well, shit, Jay. You don’t want much, do you?”
It is a clear eye that informs these narratives; Gilstrap nails each and every perspective, from the fragile Maddie to wry, toughened Janine. When Maddie threatens to uproot for Pittsburgh, Janine reacts with a revealing combination of incredulity and tender empathy: “Janine thinks it must be the coldness of Steeltown that sounds good to Maddie…She could walk through the grit and the snow feeling like it matched. Charlotte isn’t a town to be depressed in. It is a town to settle down and buy stuff in…It is a town to have Pomeranians and Volvos in. To tease your hair in. Move to the south side. Have babies. Fix meals. Be quiet…Janine also knows neither of them is likely to leave.”
Barbarella is much a story of place as anything else; for better or worse, it is firmly entrenched in its part of North Carolina. Even Janine’s father admits that she’d probably be better off elsewhere. “Janine needed to get out of Dodge,” he muses. “It would be harder for her here. Some redneck would see her with a woman and, at the very least, preach to her about God hating dykes. I used to get the same thing because of my long hair. At school, the good old boys never hesitated to rain down a “faggot” or two with the bottles they threw. In their eyes, being into books and Aerosmith and having long hair made some kind of surefire gay soup out of men.” With more than a little shame, he admits, “I couldn’t hide her, and I knew I shouldn’t want to.” It’s no mistake that, in the book’s sole mention of the “Bible Belt,” the word “strangle” is used in the same sentence.
Barbarella’s primary conflict, however, becomes the question of Janine’s ability to open herself up and locate the courage to forgive her mother. “Some say regret termites through a person,” Gilstrap writes. “External grain intact, insides barely held together.” Scenes that risk veering into sentiment are swiftly corrected by each character’s exquisite self-awareness. Mother and daughter pose a greater threat to themselves than to each other; Loretta, in baking a hopeful pie for Janine, considers her marble roller: “People used to joke about me beating an ex or two…with one of these suckers, but anyone who really knows me knows I would use it on myself first.”
What Gilstrap most clearly and delicately portrays is the fraught path to forgiveness – the failed attempts, the fear of loosening reservation, and the joy that can accompany that final, rare relenting: the stony self, opening itself to grace. It’s a bittersweet, full-bodied rendering that would do McCullers proud.
About the Reviewer:
Kayla Whitaker holds an MFA in fiction from New York University, and her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, BODY, Bodega, Joyland, The Switchback, Five Quarterly and others. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, she recently appeared alongside such luminaries as Lynyrd Skynyrd as a commentator in the History Channel’s southern culture documentary You Don’t Know Dixie. Originally from Eastern Kentucky, she currently lives in New York. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Random House in January 2017.