Mary Overton's first book, The Wine of Astonishment,
succeeds on every level as a collection. Strung together like beads on
a magical thread, these stories seize the reader with fresh insight from
first page to last with a blessed lack of pretention.
Overton's tales delve into the dark back niches of the human mind,
where our strangest and most forbidden thoughts and impulses lie hidden.
This collection gives us permission to embrace our restrained
musings, to let our fancies take us where they will.
The characters in The Wine of Astonishment vary widely
in age and social station, in the scopes of their desires and needs.
What they all have in common is a sudden ability to see through the
veil of prosaic acceptability that enshrouds the sparkling magic at the
heart of life. Extraordinary events, as well as ordinary events seen
through extraordinary eyes, have the power to change lives and
perceptions, to force the realization that they want more from life upon
those living it.
The title character in "Butterfly Girl" is a young child,
innocent enough yet to not understand the restrictions upon what she might become,
who longs to fly away with an annual migration of monarch butterflies.
In "After the Kill", unexpected confrontations with varying
faces of death inspire a sea change in a cleaning woman's senses of
ambition and curiosity. A reel-to-reel tape recording of a dead mother
instills a young woman with the ability to hear machines talk in "Mother
Machine," and what they have to say is nothing like you'd expect.
A young single mother encourages a friendship between her small daughter
and a neglected immigrant child until she is forced to choose between
convenience and responsibility in "Ruth." In "Visiting the
Pakistanis," a child again pulls a woman into the ironically incomprehensible
and uncomfortable world of neighboring immigrants.
"Ladies in the Trees," possibly the best of these stories,
tells the Southern gothic tale of a poor white trash family whose patriarch is addicted
to the acquisition of knowledge and whose women -- with a notable exception --
can see ghosts, and of torpor that can drive a family mad. A suburban
witch preys on obsessive middle-aged male runners, turning their mid-life
crises into literal prisons in "Running." A recent suicide in "After Life"
reflects on life, death and what comes next. "Mr. & Mrs. Tattoo at the
Amusement Park" conveys dead-on the self-consciousness of adolescence
as a girl discovers in the most painful way the relative insignificance
of apparent normalcy. The title story, "The Wine of Astonishment," brings
dreams of flying to life, but in a world where fliers and dreamers are
pressed into the painful molds of realism.
Misspent youth and the palliative power of happy memories, no matter
how dim or false, are the core of the poignant, unanswered "Letters to Ellen."
In "The Close," an itinerant cookware seller covets the plainly normal
lives of the fairgoing women who purchase her wares. And in "Fly-by-Night
Weddings," such a young woman about to be married rejects the expectations
of others for her life and for the predictable direction it ought to take.
Overton's stories surprise the reader into new understanding. They
rattle us out of our ruts to where we can see the magical potential that
lies quietly behind the veil of our day-to-day routines and ways of
seeing. First published in such renowned reviews as Glimmer
Train Stories, The Southern Anthology and The
Belletrist Review, the stories in The Wine of Astonishment
are of the rare sort possessing the vitality to affect our awareness of
the world where we live.