We Are Taking Only What We Need, a collection of stories by Stephanie Powell Watts, has a thread running through it that goes something like this: an African-American, intelligent, observant, depressed dirt-road country girl in North Carolina struggles every day, in every situation, to make sense of her feelings, her relatives, and her lack of a clear future, whether it involves a man, a job, or God.
In the best story, “There Can Never Be Another Me,” that girl is pushed aside by an older man’s continuing attraction to the wife he’s always leaving. The wife he’s always leaving, of course, is the basic girl grown older, angrier, and still as confused as ever about why men are necessary, or so damned persistent.
Watts’ setting, character and themes make me think of a white female writer who grew up in Georgia: Flannery O’Connor. What Watts lacks that O’Connor possessed, it seems to me, is a tight, explosive sense of story wrapped up in the fundamentally tragicomic wickedness of people--their vanity and greed above all.
Some of these stories are so socially fuzzy (who is related to whom? who is sleeping with whom?) that it’s a challenge for the reader to keep the narrative straight. Others are richer in the middle than in the end, when the fundamental girl just has to give up and yield to uncertainty.
The collection has several strengths: a consistent, well-controlled prose style full of vivid details; a great instinct for titles (“If You Hit Randolph County, You’ve Gone Too Far;” “Family Museum of the Ancient Postcards”); and a commitment to bringing the South’s backwoods African-American trailer-folk to the fore. Here we have prison visits, mental institution visits, and painfully accurate portrayals of people who fear they have passed the entire day not being seen.
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