If the only subjects worthy of a writer’s labor concern certain universal truths, which William Faulkner called the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, then Marlin Barton has achieved a noble goal with his splendid second collection of stories, “Dancing by the River.”
Most of the stories center around several generations of Andersons, a family that once owned a general store in rural Alabama. There is no genealogical tree to easily identify the Andersons, nor does Barton provide any but the slightest of physical descriptions of his central characters, choosing instead to depict them by their ages and by their relationships with friends, spouses, parents, children and lovers. When he does provide clues about his characters’ appearances, Barton affords this modest luxury mostly to the supporting cast from outside the Anderson clan, such as a gypsy handyman or a mouthy young Confederate soldier.
The sparse character studies do not deprive the stories of their rich imagery, however, because Barton’s strengths lie in his subtle description of place and his pitch-perfect dialogue. For Barton, what happens to his characters in their relationships, framed by their connection to their homes, the family store, or a strip club, is far more important than any family trait passed down through the generations. The constant references throughout to area rivers, as obstacles to cross or landmarks by which to identify significant events, reflect the temporary place that each generation occupies compared to the eternity of the countryside in which the characters live.
Barton adheres to the premise that universal truths are universal precisely because they cannot be avoided by forewarning but must be learned anew by each generation. In “Another Story for Catherine,” Barton visits the theme of a doomed love affair in which a grandson enters into the same tortured relationship with an older woman that his grandfather experienced two generations before in “At the Wall in Gaillon.” That the grandson began his romance at a college night class instead of in post-World War II France does not diminish the heart’s expectation that love can triumph over adversity, nor does it soften the blow when love falls short, again.
Only two of the twelve stories in “Dancing” do not concern the Andersons but, instead, feature a narrator who hopes to keep his marriage from dissolving. “Meaning Business” does little more than provide back story for the protagonist in “Falling,” a chronicle of an absurd contest in which chickens are dropped from a low-flying plane into a crowd of contestants, with one chicken bearing a special ticket that will reward its captor with an all-expenses paid vacation along the so-called “Redneck Riviera” in Gulf Shores. “Falling” can stand alone, however, as one of Barton’s most endearing stories, with the future of a loveless marriage depending for survival on the comic plight of flightless fowl.
In his best stories, including “Beneath a Dark Window,” “Falling,” “Errands,” and “At the Wall in Gaillon,” Barton focuses on decisions made in life, or words spoken, that seemed right at the time, and he provides his characters with the perspective of time to determine whether their past actions were, indeed, well chosen. Redemption does not come often in these stories, but enlightenment always appears, even when not welcome.
Barton endeavors to remind man “of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past,” an obligation with which Faulkner sought to imbue future generations of writers. With “Dancing by the River,” Marlin Barton capably discharges his duty.