Kaye Gibbons | Critical Review by Padgett Powell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Kaye Gibbons.
This section contains 993 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Padgett Powell

SOURCE: "As Ruby Lay Dying," in The New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1989, pp. 12-13.

Powell is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following positive review of A Virtuous Woman, he maintains that the novel has a "remarkable structure" that compensates for the lack of "verbal and dramatic fireworks."

All the people in Kaye Gibbons's second novel, A Virtuous Woman, are, as they might put it, considerable banged up. Two women, vestiges of Southern belles, have had to marry tenant farmers, or worse. A son has seen his daddy smashed by a tractor. Another son has been (s)mothered into raping a woman and hanging a mule. A heavy black maid must wrap her knees with Ace bandages in order to stoop and bend. And the woman of virtue referred to in the title is the wife of a migrant farm laborer who, when he discovers that her wealthy (by his lights) father is not good for much dowry, parades a 16-year-old girl in front of her, wearing the wife's lingerie. He then runs out to a pool hall, gets knifed and dies.

This death allows the virtuous Ruby Pitt Woodrow, who most imprudently eloped with the scoundrel to begin with, to meet and marry a good man, Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes, a man who may also fairly be called sweet, and a man who may finally be called virtuous himself. Ruby lives a good life with Jack until she experiences the ultimate banging up—her death by lung cancer at age 45, which leaves Jack more than a little at loose ends. In fact, their life has been a travail of making ends meet, while not having children or money or much else except each other: a life measured in spoonfuls of cornmeal.

This compact, complex novel is a somewhat stripped-down descendant of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. There are, however, two large differences. First, the mythic is eschewed. No coffin will go down the river; rather, Jack will allow Ruby's hands to be unnaturally folded on her chest because, he is told, everyone goes that way. He fiddles with her hands only to conceal her nicotine-stained fingers, the mark of her death (a curious gesture, it seems, given the tobacco-is-king climate of North Carolina, where the novel is set). And, second, it is not a multitude but merely two narrators who address us, one of them Ruby as she actually does lie dying. Jack speaks to us after Ruby dies, Ruby as she prepares to.

There is considerable risk in separating these two voices by time and death, for the alternating monologues are sufficiently out of phase that their constructive union is the work of the reader (who, lazy or primed by another Faulkner display, The Wild Palms, may want to skip chapters). A static quality threatens, but it is one that seems right here, if not ingenious. Ruby has died (or is about to, in her chapters) of some seeming metastasis, and Jack is (about to be) suspended in a stasis of grief and just plain not knowing what to do.

As if to deepen this dare, Ms. Gibbons has Jack and Ruby speak in a kind of standard somewhat-low-white-South idiom that is not off the beam enough to be interesting in itself, that is rarely (to its benefit) "poetic" and that calls attention mostly to its own ordinariness. People speaking in this guise can be as busy as one-armed paper hangers, caught between a rock and a hard place and, inevitably, a day late and a dollar short. Jack and Ruby, moreover, refer to their own sayings and actions as singular when they are not—which gives the same kind of pain as putting up with people who think they are funny or witty, and are not. Jack invariably introduces himself as "Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes—stokes the fire, stokes the stove, stokes the fiery furnace of hell!" When Ruby's mule is hanged, Jack accepts as compensation, worked out in some calm talk in the culprit's father's den, $100, taking pleasure mostly in its being money that was earmarked for the mule hanger's mother's new dishwasher.

There is guile in this pedestrianness. In the absence of verbal or dramatic fireworks—one thinks of a Lillian Hellman play—structure stands in, that constructive interference kicks in, and the architecture of this novel is remarkable. There are balances and counterbalances, symmetries and their neat absence that shore up the book, creating a sturdier vessel than one might have anticipated. Consider the "class structure" alone: two tenant farmers "marry up" to landed women (and two women marry down); one woman is virtuous, one bad (the mother of the mule hanger, a monstrous harridan called Tiny Fran Hoover, who is of mythic proportion and who in another novel could rule the roost, if not the modern fictive world); Burr, husband to Fran (by dishonorable, necessary marriage), inherits her father's land, while Jack, refusing Ruby's father's land and expecting Hoover land, receives none.

There is also some "moral structure": Tiny Fran, after all the terrorizing she can manage, is bought off or out of her marriage, and Ruby, after genuinely living as well as she can, is taken prematurely out of her marriage by death.

And consider the results: Jack is alone, bereft, "witnessing a chunk of the universe" that has come loose and knowing that "he doesn't have what it takes to stick it back together." Burr, contented by the merciful "loss" of Fran, is in a position to help Jack, who has been something of a father to him.

In a final choral chapter, in which we briefly hear more voices and more echoes of this novel's traditions, Jack Stokes is shown—as Ruby says early on—with "something raw and right there on the surface with him." He is not stoking the fiery furnace of hell, he is just about in it. And this novel does him and the woman he lost—and the meek, plain people like them—full credit.

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This section contains 993 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Padgett Powell
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