Black Tickets: What They Get You

This collection of short stories has attained wonderful reviews from critics such as Tillie Olsen, Tim O’Brien, Rosellen Brown, and Annie Dillard, with good cause.

Black Tickets contains twenty-seven short stories ranging from one to twenty-two pages. The variety of story lengths is pleasing and adds character to the book. Some of the longer stories are, at times, thrillingly intense making the shorter stories refreshing. Although the shorter stories are almost just as breath- taking as the longer, it is relieving that they are quick and don’t have quite as much time to build the amazing detail and conflict found in, for instance, Lechery. Maybe this is what Tillie Olsen had in mind when this statement was made, ” The unmistakable work of early genius trying her range” (from the cover of the book).

The stories also deal with a range of subjects from provocative and shocking to common and ordinary but certainly not boring. Rosellen Brown said it best when she reported that Jayne Anne Phillips “sees through the ordinary to its mysterious heart” (from book cover). All the stories in Black Tickets deal with human nature, and how often times lives are perverted by the decay of society or simply altered by a major occurrence in life. Death, drugs, pornography, and abuses of all kinds become the cause and the effect of some of the conflicts in the collected stories. But not all of the pieces are about the events that occur in dark streets or hidden alley- ways, there are also stories about families and there troubles.

The second story in the collection is Home. It is about the relationship between a mother and daughter and the effects of the daughter’s lifestyle on the relationship. The story is told by the daughter who ran out of money and went home to live with her mother. The characterization of the mother is charming and well-known. She is the all American mom and the daughter is, well, a normal twenty-three year old. The two try to cope with their different opinions about the world and more directly about sex. The “generation gap” seems to be the major obstacle in the way of the perfect relationship. The story is very good and probably easy for anyone to relate with. This story ends with a still picture that hangs in the mind of the reader: The mother, washing dishes that were already clean, begins to sob. The daughter moves closer and holds her. The mother confesses that she overheard the daughter having sex and is deeply upset. “And we stand here just like this” (p.25).

Solo Dance , with the total length of about one page, is the story of , again, a daughter who visits the hospital where her father recovers after a cancer operation. She helps him shave and reads his get well cards to him. “She could see him flickering” (p.125). She does not speak a line in the story but her feelings are related to the reader by her memories of the fist day of a ballet lesson where “her teacher raised her leg until her foot was flat against the wall beside her head.” “He held it there and looked at her. She looked back at him, thinking to herself it didn’t hurt and willing her eyes dry” (p.126).

Unlike the two previous stories, Lechery, is not in a normal family setting or about domestic cares but lake there of. The main character in this eleven page story is a fourteen- year old ward of the state lives a terrible life of moving from home to home. She remembers a childhood companion who was also at Children’s Center, Natalie. She and Natalie shared a bed for six months , “Asking can she look at me. But I fall asleep, I won’t take my clothes off in bed with her” (p. 39). The memory of Natalie haunts the narrator in her thoughts and her dreams. The child suffered many dramatic and lecherous experiences which influenced her decision to leave the foster home scene and become a part of a twisted couple’s life: Kitty and Wumpy. The narrator makes her own money by selling pornographic pictures to grade-school boys and going to motels with men from bars under the supervision of Wumpy. It is a very sorrowful story that reflects the warped values and lost morals of society.
The language in the stories is poetic and shows clear evidence of the authors masterful grip on the English language (or, as some may say the grip of the English language on the author). The lines flow gracefully and clearly, easily painting vivid pictures of the characters, their thoughts, feelings , and the scenes around them. The similes and metaphors she uses are phenomenal. In “Gemcrack” the mass murder describes himself as “that glittering drop of mercury spilled out a broken glass stick” (p.254). Frank Conroy says, “Phillips’s prose is audacious, musical, and fresh” (from back cover). Her lines are extremely beautiful and haunting all at once. She turns the ordinary clank of two spoons into ” the inanimate silver talking its clatter” (p. 212) in the story Snow . Just to hear just the novel use of language and expression on display is reason enough to read this book.

Also by Jayne Anne Phillips; Counting and Sweethearts.

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