The most striking thing about Ellen Gilchrist’s fiction is the spellbinding and seemingly artless narrative voice she has perfected. Since coming out of nowhere in 1981 — or more specifically out of Fayetteville, Ark., where the then 46-year-old author’s first story collection, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, was published by the University of Arkansas Press — Gilchrist has written several wonderful books of short stories and two less than wonderful novels. A collection of three closely related novellas, I Cannot Get You Close Enough has the strengths and weaknesses of both.
Even when Gilchrist isn’t writing in the first person, her stories somehow feel as if she were. In part this is due to the immediacy of her style, in part to her close identification with her subject matter. Gilchrist’s protagonists tend to be rich Southern women with highbrow tastes, low-down ways, liberal political views, and smart mouths. Many are artists or writers, all tend to be drop-dead good looking and to lead complicated sex lives. Whatever else she’s capable of, a Gilchrist heroine will be sure to talk dirty.
If handsome, Gilchrist’s men are rakes; if faithful, a bit pathetic. ”I know King’s daddy,” Daniel Hand says, warning his love-struck daughter about her boyfriend in ”A Summer in Maine.” ”His daddy is the worst womanizer in the United States. His daddy would run around on the Queen of England.” Actually, Daniel’s no slouch in that department himself — though no match for his sister, the famous novelist Anna Hand. Daniel Hand’s cousin Crystal Manning — of the Mississippi Mannings — married her second husband, Manny Weiss, for his money. And now Miss Crystal, as her maid, Traceleen, calls her, figures she’s earning it in forgone sexual pleasures.
Readers of Gilchrist’s previous work will recognize that we are in familiar territory here. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but the most effective of the three novellas, ”De Havilland Hand,” is the one in which Gilchrist’s repertory cast plays the smallest role. Set in Tahlequah, Okla., it’s the tale of Daniel Hand’s unknown daughter by the wife from his hippie days. Restless to see the world beyond the Cherokee nation, the motherless girl yearns for her real father’s love. And his money. Making use of a forged high-school transcript instead of a glass slipper, it’s a pungent reworking of the Cinderella story with anything but a fairy-tale ending.
Unfortunately, the longer Gilchrist’s narratives go on, the more they turn digressive, repetitious, and downright blowsy — her characters’ whispered confidences calculated to shock more than enlighten. Amid all the talk about the consolations of art, there are passages here that can rival Andrew Dice Clay in both explicitness and coarseness. At her best, Gilchrist is among the most luminous voices writing American fiction. But not here. B-