Dorothy Allison is one of my favorite people, even though I don’t know her. I’ve shaken her hand and seen/heard her speak at Squaw Valley and at Tin House, though, and I’ve read enough of her work to know that she is one rare package of compassion, humor, and bitterness. Trash is full of early stories, stories from what she calls her “yellow pages” in the forward, those pages being a legal pad on which she originally scribbled down recollections of her childhood with no thought of publication. She’d go back home to the motel where the war on poverty government put her up while she was in training for a position with the Social Security administration. There, with time on her hands and no money to go out, she’d write. Later on, she rewrote, then rewrote again. And, I guess, again. Then there were some stories added on, and what we end up with is a series of stories (“linked” as they like to say now.) about growing up in a particular house in a particular community that the world labeled as garbage.
Allison is not on a mission to sentimentalize or excuse her people–or herself. Most of her cousins, she says, were dead or drunk or pregnant or toothless at a young age. ‘There were so many we were without number and, like tadpoles, if there was one less from time to time, who counted? My maternal great-grandmother had six sons, five daughters. Each one made at least six. Some made nine. Six times six, eleven times nine. They went on like multiplication tables. They died and were not missed.” She herself was the victim of a molesting and physically abusive stepfather whom her mother (who had her while unmarried at fifteen) couldn’t quite figure out how to leave.
Though she doesn’t gloss over the uglies, she writes with great passion about the virtues, makes vicious (and well-deserved) fun of writers and others who deign to judge, to pretend they know what it’s like to grow up poor in Greenville, NC because they’ve read a little Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. Allison uses “trash” to define herself in the defiant way that black people us “Nigger” and gays use “Queer.” We can call each other that name, but you better not. In truth, we have no other literary voice that I know of from Allison’s people. Neither Faulkner nor O’Connor, as effectively as they wrote about the south, came from the redneck poor life and folks from which Allison escaped. And neither of them was (at least openly) gay. And Allison is not only open, but fierce about it.
These stories are autobiographical, but they are not memoir. They stand as true pieces of fiction, and you can’t tell which is the biography and which is the made up. “Gospel Song,” is a good example, the story of her albino friend with parents who run a gospel singing troupe. Whether or not there really was a Shannon Pearl in Allison’s life, her friendship with another outcast becomes a true symbol of what it means to live reviled and rejected. And the closing story, “Compassion,” about her mother’s death is as touching a piece of prose as you’ll ever read. Love and cruelty nestled side by side. Almost operatic.
If you’re looking for booze, sex, and pot, you’ll find plenty of that in Trash as well. But what you’ll find mostly is well-crafted, deeply true and wrenching stories drawn directly from a worlds you can barely imagine.