Anna Noyes’ debut collection of short stories is full of graceful writing about terrible things.
Joni hears her name called in the middle of the night. Outside her window, she sees her husband, Jack, wading into the quarry holding a chunk of rock. His head slips beneath the water.
The police rule it a suicide, but they don’t find the body. Maybe, Joni thinks, Jack only waited until she’d have seen him go under and then swam out the other side. He could be off starting a new life, or perhaps he’s been watching her from the surrounding woods, testing her response. He’d grown erratic and sometimes cruel, increasingly touched by an unidentified madness.
After days and nights of thinking of nothing but Jack — and the quarry — Joni’s story culminates in a sudden moment of out-of-body euphoria as, in the pitch-black hours of early morning, she ventures into the water herself, her fear “tangible, pulsating, radiant on her skin”:
“Deep down the soft world of the quarry stirs. The only noise underwater is the churning of Joni’s legs, keeping her afloat. And then she is on her back, a bright cutout against the surface: strong arms and legs, full hips, long neck, hair tangled and weightless. The water’s many hands swim up and hold her, pressing her body to the sky.”
Over the course of the 11 stories in Anna Noyes’ debut collection, Goodnight, Beautiful Women, the author demonstrates a remarkable gift for investing her female protagonists with subtle, complicated feelings that are both startling and credible: a bride finds comfort in the presence of a husband who brutalizes her; a macabre dinner-party game sends a woman reeling through confused memories of childhood sexual abuse; a young girl turns a blind eye when her sister runs away with a middle-aged, pedophilic neighbor.
Noyes deals in dark themes, and she maintains a hardness about the stories she tells. The very telling of them implies empathy, but her terse, crystalline prose precludes any creeping emotionalism. There’s little joy in her plots, but much to be taken from her poised writing.
Noyes grew up in Sorrento, a town of some 300 year-round residents, across Frenchman Bay from Bar Harbor — and her home state provides the backdrop for much of Goodnight, Beautiful Women. Amid all the anguishing turns of her plots, Maine serves as a consistent thread that fosters a sense of coherence from story to story.
But Noyes’ Maine isn’t beachfront idylls and wide-open living; it’s unromantic, gritty, and provincial, signified by coffee brandy, “207” tattoos, and doublewides. Sometimes, Noyes is explicit about her settings — say, a bus trundling toward Boston through Augusta and Portland. But even when she’s not, Maine’s fingerprints are everywhere. Drivers still hit the road in ’89 Volvos; “summer people” flit in and out of characters’ lives; a mother exclaims, “I’ve got to get out of this house. This town, too. It’s just too fucking cold” (one imagines Noyes’ readers in Caribou nodding in solidarity). Despite the self-contained plots, the unified sense of place lends a novelistic feel that many short-story collections don’t possess.
If there’s criticism to be leveled, it’s that Noyes’ male characters tend to be perpetrators or patsies or guys who actually say things like, “That was some hot lovemaking.” She does unto men as Hemingway does (and as many male authors do) unto women, so maybe the imbalance shouldn’t come as a surprise, a failing, or a deterrent to readers. But she affords her female characters such rich interior lives — who wouldn’t want to see some of that complexity in the men too?
Between the grotesque misdeeds that characters inflict on each other and the stark sense of a place — Maine stripped of its veneer — Goodnight, Beautiful Women reads like an improbable channeling of Flannery O’Connor on the one hand and Elizabeth Strout on the other, two very different specialists of the short-story form. Noyes might be staking out a Northeastern Gothic genre. Whatever the label, her writing is worth any reader’s time.