A while back, famed playwright August Wilson told me in an interview that Carol Bly had been instrumental in steering him past career obstacles to submitting his work to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference: the late author Bly (1930-2007) was executive director of the Playwrights’ Center when Wilson was working on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I heard her name sporadically, in passing, over the years until the recent opportunity arose to review her book Shelter Half. I was intrigued to read the work of someone who’d had a hand in launching the career of a writer who eventually became one of the world’s most noted authors.
Having read Shelter Half, it doesn’t surprise me that Bly took an interest in Wilson. Throughout the mastery and mistakes of his writing, when his plays worked and when they didn’t, August Wilson showed an unfailing hand at drawing richly detailed characters. Bly does the same in Shelter Half, crafting entities so fully realized you couldn’t see them any more clearly if they walked and talked in front of you. You may well know folk who behave like them. Couple this with Carol Bly’s natural gift for storytelling and you don’t merely have a book: you have a memorable experience bound between two covers.
|shelter half by carol bly. published by holy cow! press (2008). $15.95.|
Shelter Half hooks you with the discovery of a murdered young woman’s body. Bly artfully segues from the murder mystery to a broader tale, introducing the townsfolk of St. Fursey, Minnesota, a rural whistle-stop just off Highway 53. Aspects of the murder and its investigation come and go, threaded in a tapestry of lives. Bly threads with such subtlety, you forget to be impatient. As she takes time with each character and his or her circumstance, you want her to get back to the crime, but wouldn’t dream of rushing her. Turning each page, you’re fascinated. Had the old CBS hit Northern Exposure been written this well, it might still be on the air, giving ER a run for its money as History’s Most Ballyhooed Nighttime Soap.
At the heart and soul of Shelter Half is Carol Bly’s understanding and appreciation of humanity—both noble souls and ne’er-do-wells. She goes from plainly matter-of-fact to beautifully dramatic, and back, in seamless transition. For instance, Bly narrates the idle particulars of one Dr. Anderson going about his rounds, holding you comfortably engaged, gradually moving to the reality of his patient Arlene Stropp. “[If] the chief fixed up a restraining order on Brad”, Bly writes, “Brad would beat up Arlene, get put in prison for a while, then get out and her up again. The clincher reason, though, Dr. Anderson thought, was that Arlene was caged in her own ideals. She was married. She was a married woman [who]…crouched in her marriage the way a live-caught mouse crouches in a humane trap. Arlene did not see it as a cage for holding prey for a predator.”
Bly similarly renders everyone here absolutely accessible. She cares about her characters, which is how you come to care about them too; and she never stops moving the story forward.
Shelter Half, beginning to end, fascinates. Carol Bly’s gift was to put life-like fiction on the page, as only a novelist who loves humanity can.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities.
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