By Ramona Reeves
University of Pittsburgh Press; 2022
Genre: Short Fiction
Reviewed by Edward Journey
It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories is the triumphant debut collection of short fiction by Ramona Reeves. These eleven intertwined stories, featuring denizens of Mobile, Alabama, beckon us to consider a world of flawed and damaged people trying to do their best in stories that are sometimes as gritty as an oyster shell parking lot. The roads to redemption are tricky and full of hazards, and Reeves bestows these stories with hardy and sensitive renderings of people who will seem familiar to many readers – from the church, the truck stop, the country club, a bar. One of Reeves’s characters realizes that “life was not Southern Living. It was People magazine …”
Ramona Reeves grew up in Alabama and currently lives in Texas. It Falls Gently All Around won the University of Pittsburgh Press Drue Heinz Literature Prize for short fiction. Reeves is the recipient of the Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, A Room of Her Own fellowship, and a residency at the Kimmel Nelson Harding Center for the Arts. Her writing has appeared in various magazines and journals.
The stories in It Falls Gently All Around focus on Babbie and Donnie, with forays into the lives of their relatives, friends, exes, colleagues, and the occasional child. We first meet Babbie on a cigarette break during her overnight shift at a hospital, just before she goes to her day job at a truck stop. Both jobs mark a step up from her previous work as a motel night clerk and parttime prostitute. Next, we meet Donnie, a truck driver, on a cross country haul, marking each state line and hundred-mile marker by popping a beer. On a detour to see a fortune teller, he is robbed and stranded, but finds a book on yoga and decides to become a yogi. It’s good he has a back-up plan – however farfetched – since he’s fired upon his arrival in California, loses his CDL on the drive home, and finds his wife’s signed divorce papers when he gets back to Alabama.
From these inauspicious beginnings, the aspirations of Babbie and Donnie become the nexus for stories and characters that defy expectations and whet our appetite to know more. The stories are arranged in nonchronological order; backstories are revealed and background characters get their moments in the spotlight. Fay, the incidental owner of a truck stop where Babbie and Donnie both work, becomes the protagonist of “The Right Side of the Dash,” a haunting and haunted story of a widow, “sixty-nine and single,” who tries to outrun senility in her pursuit of long-suppressed dreams. In “Sighting Dolphins,” Claire, the current wife of “the best” of Babbie’s three ex-husbands, debuts her start-up confectionery business with a cake featuring what is supposed to be a softball mitt. Later, she’s trying her skills at running estate sales.
Reeves deftly explores class distinctions in a culture in which the gift wrapping for a baby shower speaks volumes about the social status of the giver. This clash of cultures is an ongoing theme throughout the collection. As her homespun wife opens shower gifts at the country club, a woman raised in a more traditional old Mobile household wonders “[h]ow was it possible to both love and despise tradition,” realizing that she is “not equipped to live in a completely new world, nor able to live in the old one.”
The stories of It Falls Gently All Around frequently surprise with an open-minded and even-handed take on modern life and relationships. Reeves skillfully evokes compassion and warmth for characters we might be inclined to dislike – a sister-in-law asks for a life-changing favor; the current wife of an ex is forced to reckon with her privilege; a mother-in-law, in a moment of unexpected exhilaration, lets down her guard – and judgment – and dances barefoot to Cyndi Lauper. Donnie’s ambition to become a yogi becomes less absurd as his dedication and commitment become more clear. These generous stories are sometimes fraught with anxiety or sexual tension and the sense of longing and urgency is never far away.
It Falls Gently All Around is a fine and noteworthy collection of characters and their stories, impeccably wrought to bring the reader into a place of tradition and contradiction. It’s a place you’ll want to return to, looking forward to where Ramona Reeves might take us next.
Edward Journey, a retired educator and theatre artist, is on the editorial board of Southern Theatre magazine, regularly shares his essays in the online journal “Professional Southerner” (www.professionalsoutherner.com), and has most recently published reviews, papers, and articles in Alabama Writers’ Forum, Arkansas Review, Southern Theatre, and Theatre Symposium.