Lee Smith is the Dolly Parton of American literature. I say that without an ounce of irony or humor. As a matter of fact, if you told me Dolly Parton and Lee Smith are best friends, I wouldn’t even bat an eye. Shoot, they might even be the same person. I have arrived at this revelation because I cannot think of two American icons whose self-deprecation belies a self-assured genius, whose searing humor allows their listeners and readers to bear the pain that seeps from their work, who have done so much for the communities they’re from and the communities they’ve embraced.
What more could we want at this historical moment, a moment when a global pandemic has a stranglehold on our news cycles, souls, and psyches, when all we want is a calm, familiar, self-assured voice to reach out from the chaos to let us know we’re all going to be okay? Dolly Parton has taken to offering up online videos of herself reading bedtime stories to children as part of her iconic Imagination Library. There she is — as glamorous as ever — sitting up in bed in a pair of pajamas, ready to tell us a story and tuck in our national anxiety for the good night of sleep that all of us need.
Lee Smith is here too, and she’s got a story to tell you.
Smith’s new novella Blue Marlin is about a woman named Jenny looking back on her time as a young girl more given to concocting and inhabiting fantasies than dealing with reality during the turbulent summer when her father’s infidelity tests of the bonds of her parents’ marriage. Can you blame Jenny? It’s not her fault that her mother and father might not have been a good fit; after all, her staid Virginia father was cool and distant, “a loner, an observer, an outsider,” while her outgoing, South Carolina-born mother “had broken every heart in Charleston and had a charm bracelet made out of fraternity pins to prove it.”
It’s not Jenny’s fault that news travels fast in her small southwestern Virginia town. It’s not her fault that adults too often make a mess of things. When our world doesn’t make sense, sometimes the easiest thing to do is to lose yourself in that other world, the world of glitzy movie stars and glamorous storylines, the world where cheating husbands and heartbroken wives are the stuff of magazine fodder instead of dinner table silence.
This is the world where Jenny’s heart resides, often at the encouragement of her mother, who’s just as likely as Jenny to swoon over the news of the marital, post-marital, and extra-marital doings of movie stars like Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelly Winters. Jenny longs to be part of that world with its attendant heart throbs and heartaches, but that world seems far off to Jenny, who in reality is a “skinny, pale, wispy haired kid on a bike, quick as a rabbit, fast as a bird, riding invisible all over town, bearing my awful secret.”
At its core, invisibility, reality, and the overwhelming pressure of maintaining awful secrets are the driving forces in Lee Smith’s taut, heart-rending, hilarious novella. Jenny floats just under her parents’ radar, but her secret life is alive with imaginary machinations illuminated by what she is able to perceive of her parents’ struggles with marriage, alcohol, mental illness, and depression. This is where the mastery and mystery of Lee Smith’s fiction is the most impressive: she is able to stir us to laughter over the most painful turns family life can take.
In the end — and what an ending it is to a novel that finds our little family taking a restorative sojourn to Key West that puts them in direct contact with the movie stars mother and daughter have always admired — Blue Marlin offers what we all need: a calm, familiar voice that can stir us to laughter and hope despite the collective grief we are all feeling. Grab a copy of Blue Marlin. Put on your pajamas and climb into bed. Lee Smith has a story to tell you.
By Lee Smith
Published April 21, 2020