By: Philip Shirley
Reviewed by: Kirk Curnutt
Jefferson Press, 2008
Dr. Seuss, Joseph Heller, and Joshua Ferris are just a few of the talented writers shaped by stints in the advertising industry. Among this esteemed fraternity, Alabama-born Philip Shirley is unique: No mere copywriter or account manager, he is the CEO of the Mississippi-based GodwinGroup, the South’s oldest ad agency. Oh Don’t You Cry for Me is his first book of fiction, and some readers will inevitably look for hints of his prestigious career in this nine-story collection. Those hints won’t be found in the content, which tends toward the dark, sad, and twisted. Rather, the influence is in the craft. These are precise, sharply structured tales with plenty of what admen say it takes to break through the clutter and arrest a reader’s attention. Put simply, Mr. Shirley’s got hook.
Consider the opener, “Charisma,” which begins—literally—with a spanking delivered by a Swaggart-style Bible-thumper to the derriere of a teenage hitchhiker. What could have been a skeezy descent into Lolita-like exploitation instead becomes a shell game in which it’s never quite clear until the end who’s zooming whom—a masterful manipulation of plot made all the more impressive by the story’s compact three-page length. Plot twists are also central to “The Downtown Club,” which manages to create empathy for its female protagonist while withholding why she trolls singles bars until the gory climax. While the surprise endings lean toward shock (“The Turkey Hunt”), they never feel like cheap stunts—they’re entirely organic. This is especially true of “The Consequence of Summer Heat,” a lovely (and lovely titled) concluding nouvelle about the deceitful ends men will go to win over a woman.
Oh Don’t You Cry for Me is also notable for Shirley’s affinity for Southern Gothicism. There are quirky characters like Duane in “To Be Loved in Skyline,” who photographs dead armadillos with beer cans, and the namesake-burdened Morrison Joplin Hendrix Jones of “The Trust Jesus Society,” whose nickname even seems a taunt: “Mojo.”
As obvious as Flannery O’Connor’s influence may be, Shirley doesn’t turn his characters into grotesques. For all their odd-ballness, they remain deeply human in their flaws, and the more baroque are balanced by sympathetic foils ripe for reader identification. Sherrie, the heroine of “Skyline,” has one of the sweetest, most sincere narrative voices I’ve read in a while. When she effectively forgives the men who abandon her—or when the narrator of “The Story of William B. Greene” forgives the prankster responsible for his friend’s death—one appreciates how deeply the author values compassion. His characters may not want us to cry for them, but they demand our understanding, something Shirley even at his darkest makes not only easy but immensely enjoyable.
Kirk Curnutt is the author of the novel Breathing Out the Ghost.