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Wednesday, June 4, 2008 03:39 pm

Booty call

Carol Manley’s struggling characters are painfully, wonderfully human

Church Booty By Carol Manley Livingston Press 2008, 140 pages, $15.95
Untitled Document You don’t expect a story that begins: “The brassiere is off, Louella” to gently break your heart, and that’s precisely what makes Springfield writer Carol Manley’s first collection of short stories irresistible. Church Booty, the runner-up for the third annual Tartt Fiction Award, has just been published by the University of West Alabama’s Livingston Press. In its pages, Manley introduces a full-voiced, energetic group of characters that in the hands of a less skillful writer would devolve into a collection of minstrel-show caricatures. Nearly all of the residents of Manley’s fiction are rather unrespectably comfortable living in the middle of the battle between their push for devotion to God and the pull of their desire for the comforts of the flesh. Somewhere within that tug of war they find neither God nor very much booty; instead, they experience the fleeting moments of connection that make us human. Every story rewards readers with one moment in which characters (often frenemies, or else mothers and daughters) come to a moment of true communion under improbable circumstances and for unlikely reasons.
The characters almost never grasp this. A reader only does upon reflection because these stories are so perfectly, wildly, deceptively entertaining that you’re tempted to take them in as clever junk food for the mind.
Readers who fret over political correctness might also be tempted to feel squeamish about how Manley (a middle-aged white woman) portrays the silliness of a number of presumably black characters. (Manley never mentions skin color unless it is essential to the plot.) And all these people — no matter their pigmentation — do crazy things. They wrestle their way down church aisles. They switch lovers and babies’ birth certificates and then tortuously and tenderly rationalize the exchanges. They constantly, desperately unleash severe forms of magical thinking into an unstintingly harsh and real world. And it is funny as all hell.
But that humor doesn’t come from any grease paint and pantomime imposed by the author. Rather, Manley lets her characters’ silliness arise honestly and naturally from their utter lack of sophistication, their often sincere desire to (at least appear to) be in the right, and the hard, bewildering social and economic circumstances in which they live. Poverty, though it is a blithely accepted fact of each of these character’s lives, is a dark undercurrent that runs through the collection. Characters are often physically trapped (and perhaps also trapped in shortsighted patterns of decision-making) by their lack of money. They spend as much energy looking for rides as they do looking for someone to love and be loved by, and they have to do it on the cheap. In one tale, a good church sister comes home after a long Sunday service to discover that her wayward cat has eaten a can full of bacon drippings and soiled the house. She is thankful she resisted the call to drop her last two dollars in the collection plate. In her world, that’s a sign that God obviously intended that money for kitty litter (although by story’s end she is far from certain as to why God has allowed a police officer to mistake her for a $2 whore cruising in Brother Bunion’s new Cadillac.) In addition to a sharp ear for voice, impeccable comedic timing, and quick plotting, Manley brings to the work her own street cred. She has known some tough economic straits and is the mother of two mixed-race children. The stories “Intensive Care” and “On the Bus” could very well reflect Manley’s own experience of sorting through her emotions when her daughter was in a near-fatal car accident a few hundred miles from home. Says the protagonist of “On the Bus”: “Being a white mother with a black child is the main thing I’ve been for as long I remember. Wasn’t no big thing that was going to change the world, and I wasn’t the only one who ever done it, but at least it was something where I always knew what I was. . . . My daughter being gone made me just one more regular white lady, which is the next thing to invisible that you can get.”
If Manley herself ever felt that way, she needn’t now. Church Booty proves that this invisible white lady and mother of two black children is also one terrific writer.
Carol Manley will sign copies of Church Booty at a reception, 5-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 11, in the restaurant of the Public Affairs Center, on the University of Illinois at Springfield campus. 

Rodd Whelpley is the author of Capital Murder, a mystery set in Springfield.