Birds of A Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
What Makes A Southern Writer?
The South has always considered itself a storytelling nation—an independent and misunderstood country of citizens who balk at belonging, cling to unity and narrate the difference. We have always known this fact: The shortest distance between two opposing forces is a good story.
Every now and then, the outside world takes notice of this technique of ours, which is not one of rationalizing, but rather a conjuring of justice. Right now happens to be one of those times, it seems: Southern is trendy.
Blame the economy, the president or the weather, but people seem increasingly to search for either solutions or solace in the South. Take the keen inquisitiveness of Kentucky-born John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay collection, Pulphead. Its connecting theme is his quest to understand and belong to his adopted region, the deeper South. (I cannot recommend highly enough his essay “Mister Lytle,” about the last days of Andrew Lytle, Sullivan’s eccentric mentor at Sewanee: The University of the South. It is a heart-stopping, knee-weakening feat of stunning Tolstoyian magnanimity.) Karen Russell’s Florida-set Swamplandia! flies off the shelves at upscale clothing stores like Anthropologie. Even the hillbilly noir of McSweeney’s author John Brandon has taken off, when perhaps in a more stable national mood, it might not. Readers crave the fantastic, perverse sadness of Southern writing. They’re on it like a duck on a June bug, as my Alabama-born grandfather would say.
Still just how much of the label “Southern” requires earning? Is it simply an accident of geography? Not all writers from the South claim the label, just as we have examples of outsiders, like Sullivan, who write of nothing else. A few themes prevail in traditional Southern writers and in the new ones—violence, family, nature, God—but they do not veer too far from the stuff of life. The difference is in attitude, in an idiosyncratic logic: Southern writers, different from Northern or Western or just plain American, go forward in nature rather than just with it.
But here’s a challenge. I recently came across a collection with writing on the South that tiptoes so elegantly and softly over the old themes that I began to think differently about the whole category of Southern writing.
Megan Mayhew Berman’s debut collection of stories, Birds of A Lesser Paradise, deals mainly in nature and with a woman’s role in today’s South. Her writing shines when linking nature and not just womanhood, but femininity.
Think of antonyms for the word magical—boring, dull, plain, unmysterious, apparent. Perhaps the intersection of these opposites is where superstition is born. What one simply brushes off as dark or eerie in typical Southern writing falls right about there in this spectrum, and Bergman excels at a mundane kind of gothic that is both familiar and frightening.
Though a resident of Vermont, Bergman will be pegged from here on out as a Southern writer for the following reasons:
• She grew up in North Carolina.
• The best stories in the collection take place in the South.
• These stories prove strange and sad.
Eudora Welty claimed Chekhov as “one of us”—a Southern writer. In 1972 she told The Paris Review, “He loved the singularity in people, the individuality. He took for granted the sense of family. He had the sense of fate overtaking a way of life, and his Russian humor seems to me kin to the humor of a Southerner. It’s the kind that lies mostly in character. You know, in Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, how people are always gathered together and talking and talking, no one’s really listening Yet there’s a great love and understanding that prevails through it, and a knowledge and acceptance of each other’s idiosyncrasies, a tolerance of them, and also an acute enjoyment of the dramatic.”
Here are three other reasons Bergman should be touted as a Southern writer:
• She gets right the singularity, the uniqueness, of her characters.
• Humor balances her sense of fate, of the region’s inescapability.
• She loves and tolerates the weirdness of people here.
Bergman writes of the real modern South, a place where single mothers decapitate copperheads in their gardens before whipping up a perfect pie crust, where the bleachers of T-ball games creak under the weight of coke-head mothers, evangelists, survivalists, and teenage cult members believing the world will end any second now. Dreams of a better life usually mean the North.
The first story of the collection, “Housewifely Arts,” takes us on a road trip to a petting zoo outside of Myrtle Beach. A woman needs to hear her dead mother’s voice one last time—replicated in her old parrot. After deciding to move with her young son away from their small North Carolina town—she wants to give her five-year-old Andrew Lloyd Webber fan a better chance—she panics when she can’t remember the exact cadence of her mother’s lost accent, the way she said “roof” or “Clorox.” Carnie the parrot could imitate her pitch exactly.
All Bergman’s stories involve mothers and animals, and “Housewifely Arts” shows perfectly the two types of love in Bergman’s universe: unquestionable and unquestioning. The difference? The direction love comes from. Women and mothers look for unquestioning love they find only from loyal pets when unquestionable love proves unavailable from the men in their lives or from unpredictable children. Bergman also tackles the strange directions love takes us: A petting zoo. Connecticut. Motherhood itself.
The author’s website shows a photo of Bergman in a spring-green checkered shirt. She holds a one-eyed cat. She lives on a farm and is married to a veterinarian, and her intimacy with Nature and with the writing profession never falters. Bergman graduated from (and now teaches at) Bennington College’s creative writing program. Amy Hempel teaches there too, and Hempel earns a thank-you in the acknowledgments of Birds. It’s not hard to imagine that her name would be there whether Bergman knew her personally or not. We see undeniable similarities between the stories of both women. Too, the strange towns populated by lonely, forgotten people recall Rick Bass, another writer who so formidably and elegantly writes of nature and its consequences.
Bergman never writes directly of heartbreak. For her, acute sickness will fade into the more tragic and joyless chore of daily living. The curse of a woman is simply to go on. There’s no devil, only pride—the most Southern of sins. In “Saving Face,” a vet named Lila gets mauled and disfigured by a wolf-hybrid that she may or may not have anesthetized improperly before plucking porcupine quills from its muzzle. “You were so beautiful,” says her mother when Lila first wakes up in the hospital. Present too waits a fiancé, Clay, still desperately in love with all of her, even when the bottom half of her face has been torn away. “She imagined Clay’s strong hands on her body again and wished she was more beautiful than proud.” Bergman offers never a tinge of self-pity, only inward-turned reckoning.
In the title story, “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” a woman named Mae abandons life in an unnamed city to help her aging father run a bird-watching company. She contemplates falling for Smith, a new client obsessed with seeing birds no one else has seen, specifically the ivory-billed woodpecker. “I was a thirty-six-year-old single woman living in a poor man’s theme park, running birding trips into the swamp … I was taught that at the heart of all people, all things, lay raw self-interest. Sure you could dress a person up nice, put pretty words in his mouth but underneath the silk tie and pressed shirt was an animal.”
It is a curious triumph of heart and storytelling that Bergman so accurately lets the reader see the rotating wheel of characters’ motivations that drive events: Smith’s for the elusive bird, Mae’s for a man, her father’s for her own needs. Isn’t that the way it happens in real life? The quiet hero? Betsy the dog, just for being a dog. “She was a slave to her instinct,” and more open about it. Here Bergman makes another case of admiration for the honesty in the uncomplicated emotions of animals. There is no guile—their motives come from love and instinct. But when are the two the same?
The real knock-out in the collection is “Another Story She Won’t Believe.” A not-quite-recovered alcoholic keeps her sanity by volunteering at a Lemur Center. This lady feels a special kinship with Agnes Moorehead of Bewitched. She compares the caged lemurs to Katherine Hepburn in On Golden Pond. (Bergman uses celebrity throughout the book to shine a light on places where superficiality masquerades as politeness. She writes of social classes for whom culture means cable television, who consider it a bad day when TMC isn’t playing something with Cary Grant.)
The protagonist has a favorite creature at the center, Faye Done Away, an exotic raccoon-looking type of lemur called an aye-aye. Faye is known in Madagascar as a “death angel” that can “pierce your aorta with their middle finger.” Faye alone permits the caresses of the unnamed narrator. That narrator’s teenage daughter lives with a cult member. She’s found in the promise of apocalypse some comfort from the pain inflicted by an alcoholic mother. In a too-little, too-late gesture, the narrator calls her daughter to convince her to leave the boyfriend and enroll in college. Bergman’s achievement here comes when she sides with the daughter in her anger, if not her choices:
“That’s a terrible way to live,” I say. “Thinking the world will end.”
“You would know,” she says.
Bergman can get even better, and that’s good news. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” a political activist finds herself pregnant, and her boyfriend is pressuring her to have an abortion. Bergman bitingly describes the boyfriend as the type of man who “wrote editorials that usually went unpublished.” He is a high-ranking activist. A vegan, no less. It all skirts a tad too close to the polemical, and brings attention to an even larger fault: The men are ghosts in this collection. They droop like flimsy paper dolls compared with the emotional fortitude of their mates. Maybe this is the point. For many women, the absence of a strong man just becomes a fact of life.
Any Southern writer, especially a woman, must bear comparison to Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. They write no less about the heart, only more hard and piercing. Bergman is every bit as soft and yielding as the belly of Faye Done Away, the aye-aye. I wonder if she has hit on the perfect parallel: not of love and motherhood, or duty and instinct, but of the region and femininity. The South may be the only thing to match femininity in invoking mystery, allure, and fear.
Let’s mention the collection’s humor too. In “The Artificial Heart,” a woman tries to find a girlfriend for her father, who has Alzheimer’s Disease. The connection is way off:
“I like your eyes,” he said. “They’re so blue.”
“I have cataracts,” she said.
This is a collection of women and women’s troubles. The first words we read are those of Charles Darwin himself, pulled from On the Origin of Species in a shrewdly chosen epigraph: “We will now discuss in a little more detail the Struggle for Existence.”
The women deal in the currency of this most basic struggle. In short, they grew too big for the small places that have chosen them, that have got them stuck with love and sticky with heat. They are doomed to survive. The only salvation comes in the wag of a spaniel’s tail or the nuzzle of a cat.
Wherever Bergman’s women end up, a good man is still hard to find.
J. Nicole Jones is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine online and on Capital New York. A native of South Carolina, she lives in Brooklyn.