by Belinda Anderson
a review by Eric
For those of you who have read Belinda Anderson’s first book, The Well Ain’t Dry Yet, her second collection of short stories, The Bingo Cheaters, may seem like a family reunion. Many of the characters introduced in the first collection have carried over into the second. Two in particular—life-worn busy-body, Wanda Talcott and quilt-maker, Twilight Dawn—actually picked up and relocated to Anderson’s new fictional setting of Hope County, WV. If you’re new to Belinda’s world and its population, however, don’t let that scare you off, because The Bingo Cheaters stands on its own.
Anderson is a student of human nature, particularly Appalachian human nature. The 20 character-based stories of this collection showcase her ability to get at the heart of what makes our people tick. It’s not always pretty, either, as in the case of “Second Sight” in which a manipulative blind girl fancies herself a con-artist, but soon finds that she’s not the only one practicing a con. Or the story “Match,” in which a little boy named Ricky learns that his hobby of playing with fire has consequences. More often, though, Anderson’s characters explore situations that resonate as common to us all. There’s the sweets-deprived husband from “Onion Blossoms,” who attempts to sample the forbidden fruit of a State Fair cinnamon roll before his wife can catch him. Or the woman in “Did You Hear the one about the Mailman,” who learns some unsettling truths while helping her mother sort jewelry. Or “Solace,” one of Anderson’s most touching stories, in which we meet a kid named Breen who has a very personal stake in our nation’s tragedy of 9-11.
The residents of Hope County are often not strangers to one another. Though each of these stories is a self-contained piece, there is something of a narrative arc for some of the characters. They pop in and out of each other’s tales, like neighbors dropping over for a visit. Readers are advised to pay close attention, because background characters in one story can become the main characters of another and vice versa. Anderson often uses this to a surprising effect.
One of Anderson’s major strengths is that her storytelling can turn on a dime. While reading the final pages of a story, your eyes may scan ahead to note that only a few short paragraphs remain and you become convinced the story could not possibly end well given that little space. Each time, though, Anderson brings her stories to a satisfying and natural close, using only a handful of carefully chosen words to neatly tie them up.
The true diamonds of the collection, such as “Solace,” “Twilight Dawn,” and the title story “The Bingo Cheaters,” leave both their characters and their eavesdropping readers changed through the experience. This is not to say that there aren’t lesser gems to be found among the diamonds of this book. The sci-fi underpinnings of “Alien Grace” ring a little off to me. And “Second Sight,” while quite humorous, contains elements that seem conveniently arranged. However, while not diamonds, these two stories remain gems all the same due to their depth of character and the observations within.Hope County proves itself to be a colorful place full of vibrant characters and, indeed, hope. I recommend picking up a copy of The Bingo Cheaters and having a visit there yourself.
Copyright © 2006 Mister Herman's Production Company, Ltd.