Kathy Flann’s eleven short stories all have a “Smoky Ordinary,”  connection, thus the title of her book. Smoky Ordinary is a rural community, located in Brunswick County, VA, which is about an hour drive, south, across the Potomac, from Washington, D.C.
I found each of Ms. Flann’s tales full of feelings and very convincing. For the purpose of my review, I’m going to focus on three of her short stories. They are representative of the body of her work in the book, reveal the full range of her sizable literary talents as a fiction writer, and show why “Smoky Ordinary” was such a delight for me to read.
First, some history: Legend has it that in July, 1781, during the Revolutionary War, the Brit’s Lt. Col. “Bloody Banny” Tarleton maliciously burned down the warehouses in “Ordinary,” and, that is how the area then became known as “‘Smoky’ Ordinary!” [Tarleton, an aristocratic snob, loathed the American rebels. Later, that vicious, little terrorist was forced to surrender, with the other members of Gen. Lord Cornwallis’ British Army, at Yorktown, VA, to the hero of the Republic–the legend–General George Washington.]
Okay, back to Ms. Flann. Let’s start with “The Dispossession of Billy Montgomery.” This is a classic theatre of the absurd account and shows off the author at her very best. It opens up with Billy, a wannabe successful band leader, who, at age 39, is going through the mother-of-all-life crises. He’s sitting on the crapper, inside a disco’s bathroom, with the music blaring away. He has a loaded gun in his hand, which is pointed “right at his cornea.” Billy is seriously considering killing himself. If that kind of “WOW” opening doesn’t grab you by your gonads, nothing will.
Why shouldn’t he end it all? Billy walked out on the “legal” wife, Margeaux. Then, the girl friend, “Sonny,” supposedly got pregnant, which spooked the love right out of that relationship. Depressed Billy is also into three other gals, but they all don’t seem to count for much.
As the tensions builds, Ms. Flann jerks your heart strings about Billy and his tanking love life. She’s also leaving you guessing until the final page–will he or won’t he?
Shifting gears, let’s try, “A Happy, Safe Thing.” This is a sweet story told from the point of view of Sheryl. She’s thirteen and in the 7th grade at J.E.B. Stuart Jr. High, which was named after the gallant Southern Cavalry Officer in the Civil War. Sheryl has a heart condition, which limits her activities. Her mom is concerned she might only have “five, ten years” left.
Minnie, Sheryl’s big sister, is getting married to Sax Smithers, age 20. He “sorts boxes” at the local pharmacy, while Minnie just graduated from high school. The reception is going to be held at an American Legion hall. What American worthy of that name hasn’t been to a wedding reception at an American Legion hall? Ms. Flann, adeptly, re-creates the scene for you.
Sheryl is happy that her classmate and next door neighbor, Eddie Strubinski makes an appearance at the event. His dad “disappeared” in the Vietnam War. Eddie was only three then and the experience has darkened his outlook on life. When Sheryl asks him: “Don’t you like weddings?” He responds, grimly, “I like funerals better.”
Eddie manages to get Sheryl out into the tent on the lawn, where he finds a chilled bottle of “Andre pink champagne.” He takes a “long drink” out of it, but Sheryl refuses his offer to join him, remembering the advice of her heart doctor. As they start back into the hall, Eddie give Sheryl–“a kiss”–her very first. She said: “He had his eyes closed and his hair spilled onto my face…When we stop kissing, he put his hand on the side of my face as if he’s wanted to for a long time.” This is magic time! And, there are more like it, in Ms. Flann’s “A Happy, Safe Thing.”
During my bar-hopping days, I’d occasionally wonder: “What the hell does she (someone that I desperately wanted to hit on) see in that freaking jerk?” Well, author Flann’s “Black Lagoon” raises that question for me again.
Enter the creeper, Dexter Gilliss, age 18. Rachel, the same age, is his current squeeze. She’s known him–like forever! He was a crony of her brother, Charlie, who died six months ago. Dexter used to stay over a lot at their house. That’s when Rachel would choose to practice her ballet “in the living room.” She enjoyed Dexter looking at her.
Dexter was with Charlie the night that he died. Charlie was doing the driving, if you want to call it that. It was at night and he “drove off a retaining wall into Lake Iroquois.” They tried to save his life at the hospital, but they couldn’t. Rachel was there when the sad announcement was made. She watched “Dexter pacing and explaining, his clothes stiff with lake water.” Rachel said to herself: “I hate him,” but she soon ignored that gut feeling.
Ms. Flann paints Dexter as a selfish smart ass who doesn’t have any Goddamn money! If he could, he would drop Rachel in a heart beat. Read the story to see what, if anything, it will take to wake Rachel up.
Summing up, Ms. Flann’ “Smoky Ordinary” is a real treat. I highly recommend it.
Note: "Smoky Ordinary," Stories by Kathy Flann [Snake Nation Press,2008,154 pp., soft cover, $20]