Cora lived in one of those small towns they make movies
about now," says the narrator of R. M. Kinder's story "Bloodlines," -"as if such
towns existed only in
the past and weren't still all over the country." Most of the other stories in the first half of "Sweet Angel Band" also happen in some such town, at the center of a larger rural community in the bootheel of southeastern Mis- souri - the sort of place that Southern writers usually report on but that certainly still exists in many other regions too. There, as "Bloodlines" continues, "every- one knew everyone, and most of their past."
R. M. Kinder has a near-perfect ear for the intran- sient individual voice. She presents her male and female narrators with such well-balanced authority that it would be difficult to guess her own sex by listening to her characters. She gets into the psychological privacy of her men and her women with extraordinary facility in stories like "Bootheel," "Genius of the Bottle" and the very tough-minded title piece, which compellingly shows how a woman in an imprisoning marriage, who's lost all her freedoms except singing in church, can hang on like death to that last one thing.
At the same time, most of the stories in Ms. Kinder's
first book also take place on a community stage. Lester Carlton is the only
character to actually appear in "Bootheel"; he's alone in his trailer or in the
woods throughout, but much of his attention is occupied by only half-resentful
broodings on the way he's viewed
by his neighbors. Even when he's going against the grain, Lester knows somebody will help him out be- cause "they all knew Lester Carlton. They had known all the Carltons."
This delicate balance of nurture and entrapment within the community comes to a tragicomic crisis in "Craryville Box," a technical tour de force told by a rotating chorus of many voices. When Fred Goff acci- dentally comes into possession of the ashes of Margaret Benson, whose family stands on the opposite side of a bitter feud that's lasted three generations, everyone is desperate to know how he'll capitalize on the tactical advantage. What follows illuminates a paradox of small-town life: these people know everything about Fred Goff, without really knowing him at all.
The eight stories in the second portion of the vol- ume differ considerably from the seven in the first, though it can be guessed how the one may have evolved from the other. The latter stories all feature a single character, Cora Leban, and as a group they read a little