A theme, if nothing else, is a good excuse -- a central point from which to hang a bunch of tenuously related creations, a maypole for your ribbons. Ask for writing on a given theme, or seek it out, and you're likely to witness that theme's boundaries broaden to encompass pieces you like -- or shrink, quivering, to tactfully exclude those you don't.
The title of the New Yinzer's second collection of work by Pittsburgh writers is Dirt, but despite the spades and coal shovels ranked on the volume's cover, the subject isn't the stuff gardeners displace at planting time; rather, it's that which one sweeps under the rug.
Samples of what editor Jennifer Meccariello has dug up include: Sherrie Flick's young business guy hiding a broken heart in "Lenny the Suit Man"; a middle-aged man puzzling over his late parents' shattered marriage in Michael Byers' "Wynn's Story"; and Kathleen E. Downey's "Trust Exercise," in which a woman blurts out a sworn family secret. The poem "Girls," by Kathryn Hawkins, probes the minds of adolescent females; in Phil Gruis' poem "Madman of Manito Place," a man walking his dog harbors hidden thoughts about an enraged bystander. A young man helps his girlfriend get an abortion in Randall DeVallance's "Death or Something Like It." The protagonist of Lisa Toboz's "Road to Happiness" is a young woman who's learning to drive and has secretly gone off Prozac.
While the eternal lure of a secret makes "dirt" an enticing metaphor, readers might wonder whether there's much American literature, from "Young Goodman Brown" to The Corrections, that would fail to qualify.
This conceptual weakness is apparent here and there. For instance, in her essay-style story "Family Secret," Jessica Messman peers into the black hole that is the past of her late, institutionalized Uncle Bubba. The piece reads like nonfiction, though in none of its 14 entries does Dirt distinguish between what's merely remembered and what's wholly fabricated. In any case, "Family Secret," though intelligently written, feels a bit too much like it was fashioned for a collection titled Dirt. Likewise DeVallance's "Death or Something Like It," a solemn play-by-play that in spite of some good character moments doesn't provide any real insights into its wrenching subject matter.
Overall, though, Dirt is an interestingly varied follow-up to the New Yinzer's first full-length collection, last year's Pittsburgh Love Stories. High on the list of standout pieces is "Lenny the Suit Man," in which Flick bestows upon her heartbroken narrator a tailor who's a glancingly mythic guardian angel. Flick's language is lean, jazzy and surprising, and works on multiple levels, as when Bob contemplates both the new suit he's ordered from Lenny and an imminent, unwanted change of season.
Yesterday, when it was raining like hell, I was the weather. Me. Right there, present tense. I didn't even use my umbrella -- walked the whole way home in my dark blue single-breasted with nobody looking twice. Now the cold I don't deserve has started in. The brown suit is mine.
Holly Farris's "Midway" also has a classic short-story feel. With its vibrant rhythms, it's spikily concise in telling of teen-age West Virginia shoplifter Rita, serving out her sentence on a road trip with a dowdy social-worker nun named Sister Jo. In Virginia Beach, a seedy carnival worker beckons a strayed Rita:
The man swung rickety lattice, letting me walk across plastic grass that his pointy-toed boots dented not at all. We went in the back to a folding chair next to a crate. A squarish bottle of Jack Daniels on top of slats was the tallest thing. His boots planted that man, the worst kind of weedy shrub, alongside the chair I sat in.
"Midway" is a streetwise story of personal redemption, sold in the currency of Plum Crazy lipstick and cold Pabst snuck onto a hot beach by a bored teen-ager on the verge of growing up. The piece's greatest strength might be its robust sense of place, embodied in a narrator who notices everything (including a damaged roadside sign reading "GO Bless America"). Almost as strikingly rooted is the story "Crowned," by Marjorie Maddox. Related by a naïve narrator who's the parade-queen daughter of an itinerant Southern preacher, "Crowned," with its hand-sewn blouses, disapproving neighbors and Strawberry Festival motorcades, is a rich, sneakily damning portrait of small-town hypocrisy.
Another unearthed gem is Don Kingfisher Campbell's poem "Vomiting for God," in which the narrator's staccato catalogue of idiot youthful transgressions -- drinking buddies who "don't stop until / [they] feel like stealing / someone else's jacket" and "find historical ways / to piss / off glinting chrome" -- culminates in a late-night blaaaargh in which nausea mingles with existential regret. Like nothing else in Dirt, it buries you in the muck of a moment and dares you to try bluffing your way out.