Ramona Reeves wins Drue Heinz with First Collection
Take the mordant wit of Flannery O’ Connor, combine it with the stripped-down empathy of Raymond Carver, and you just might have something like It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories. This debut collection by Ramona Reeves offers a window into the entwined lives of characters in Mobile, Alabama — a politically, socially and economically complex city that has been underrepresented in fiction to date. As it turns out, Reeves’s rendering of Mobile achieves that rare balance of the comfortably familiar and the startlingly new. While some of the characters may feel like people we’ve met before, their motivations, their predicaments and their choices are designed to surprise the reader at every turn.
The two principal players in these 11 linked stories include Babbie, a former call girl who has relied on the kindness of others to reinvent herself as a visible working-class fixture in town, and her boyfriend, Donnie, a recovering alcoholic whose hapless entrepreneurial dreams inspire him to become a yoga instructor. Donnie is the source of much of the collection’s humor; in “The Balanced Side,” the story in which he is introduced, he consults a psychic named Miss Sylvia, only to be drugged and robbed by her — a normally traumatic event that he escapes from with only a little sheepishness and a somewhat lighter wallet. Later, when he cuts off his signature long hair that he likes to wear coiled into a man-bun, he feels “a little naked but at the same time felt as though he might be emerging, like mud-soaked chrome after a battering rain.” We also meet Babbie’s ex-husband, Rowan, who is remarried to would-be baker Claire but still hides a picture of Babbie deep in his wallet; Corinne and Sammie Jo, the same-sex couple who are expecting their first child thanks to an unlikely local donor; and Rob, the mysterious black reverend wearing “a gold cross nearly as big as a travel tampon,” whom Babbie encounters when a tornado hits the local Chuck E. Cheese. These recurring characters reveal their true nature slowly, and their interwoven stories and personal connections with one another emerge story by story until the full picture comes into focus. The effect is like a Winesburg, Ohio for the 21st century, but with welcome diversity and a little more bite.
Ramona Reeves, winner of the 2022 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, writes with an eye toward naturalism and a talent for the absurd, using a close third-person perspective that enables the reader to see her characters intimately and from afar at once. While the events and happenstances in It Falls Gently All Around range from the quotidian (a baby shower; a party for the youth soccer team) to the catastrophic (a natural disaster; a vehicular accident), they do not arrive with a cinematic bang. Instead, they befall Mobile’s residents with eerie quietness, just as most events befall us in real life. The collection’s title, taken from one of its stories, is a perfect description of the gentle fortunes and relentless misfortunes that the characters face. But what is most remarkable is the humor and pathos with which Reeves imbues her characters. Instead of leaning fatalistically into their hardscrabble roots, Donnie and Babbie move forward in continual efforts to transform themselves, using a combination of naïve optimism, dumb luck, and agency to get by. Sometimes the result is stasis, and sometimes it is growth. In this way, they reflect Mobile itself: a city that continues to grow and change in spite of itself, its troubled history tempered with hope.
Jan Elizabeth Watson is the author of the novels Asta in the Wings (Tin House Books) and What Has Become of You (Penguin Random House). She is currently at work on a third novel. Originally from Maine, she made Pittsburgh her permanent home in late 201