Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’s debut short story collection, Sleepovers, is a lime green volume with the friendly heft of a church hymnal. The stories you’ll find in it, though, are far more gripping reckonings of sin, grace, and place than any song about the Blood of Jesus.
Phillips is a gifted, luminous storyteller and a force to be reckoned with. Every story feels like a dark family secret, like something that must be quietly and urgently retold.
Sleepovers was published after Lauren Groff chose it last year as the winner of the Michael C. Curtis Short Story Book Prize. Phillips is a graduate of Meredith College in Raleigh and UNC-Wilmington’s fiction MFA program and has had stories published in The Oxford American and the Paris Review, winning praise from the likes of Clyde Edgerton, Scott McClanahan, and Amanda Petrusich.
There’s a tender choral quality to Phillips’s characters, all of whom are drawn from her corner of the rural South. They include a wary mattress salesman, a pool custodian obsessed with her dead horse, and a little girl named Shania whose parents, enviably, own a water bed. Settings include a jacuzzi at Myrtle Beach, the local Duck Thru gas station, and the big-box store—if Flannery O’Connor’s South was Christ-haunted, Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’s South is Walmart-haunted.
Phillips’s sentences bridge the distance between deadpan and lyrical, such as this one from “The Virgin”: “Before Weston left me, he put me in handcuffs and held my head underwater in the bathtub. I would have done anything for him. I pass fields and then fields turn to nice houses and traffic.”
You’ll find plenty of fields in these stories, and in those fields (often a bright soybean green) there are a lot of horses. It’s an animal that Phillips’s characters routinely dream about or sketch to find hope—which is good, because hope seems in short supply from the outside world.
Phillips grew up in Woodland, North Carolina, a town with no stoplight and just over 600 residents. It’s in a northeastern part of the state where opportunities have dried up. As a setting, it’s fertile ground for searching characters who are just trying to make it through another day.
None of these characters are perfect: There is a whole lot of sadness and violence in these pages, sometimes startlingly so. Perspective shifts dramatically—between men and women, adults and children—but it’d be difficult to miss the fact that,
between these shifts, most violence arises from abuses of power and is suffered by women.
Phillips is a loving documentarian of the details of rural life (feral cats, Little Debbie’s, and prayer lists) but she is also a devoted witness to rural poverty and its systematic causes. In a rare turn for regional fiction, her witnessing of problems does not give way to fetishizing them.
In “Lorene,” a lonely teenager goes to visit her sister’s family in Rocky Mount. Her brother-in-law gives her a camera and the world lights up, briefly, as she notices “how in the late afternoon the camellias hung with heavy blossoms and the holly bush reached through the fence.” You can sense the dark turn things will take with the brother-in-law.
In “An Unspoken,” a woman comforts a troubled young neighbor that she tried to help raise, even after she’s horrified to catch a glimpse through the kitchen window of him raping his dog. In one of the more phantasmagoric stories, “The Virgin,” a woman shelters in a nursing home after she gets a flat tire in the rain. Hungry for acceptance and missing her abusive ex-boyfriend, she announces to the group of residents that she’s a virgin.
Between the dark subjects and Phillips’s convincing ear for regional dialect, her closest literary predecessors are probably Carson McCullers and Larry Brown. I also was reminded of the Delta poet Frank Stanford, whose talent lay in an attentive, stuttering specificity. A Stanford poem often ends like a slammed door. Phillips’s stories do, too; there’s rarely overt resolution. Often, a character will state a terrible loss as matter-of-factly as a lunch order before carrying on.
These stories announce the arrival of an important new voice in Southern fiction who knows just how to sneak small mercies in. You’ll find hope sizzling up in Mountain Dew cans or appearing as suddenly as a horse in a field. All you have to do is wait.
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