rev. of First, Body by Melanie Rae Thon

Issue #72
Spring 1997

First, Body 
Stories by Melanie Rae Thon. Houghton Mifflin, $21.95 cloth. Reviewed by Christopher Tilghman.

Melanie Rae Thon’s fierce, unyielding, and brilliant new stories are now collected in
First, Body, and the effect of reading all of them together after seeing many of them when originally published is simply to encounter genius.

These stories come from what Thon has called, elsewhere, the borderlands, the margins of our affluent culture. Thon’s borderlands are populated primarily by young people, young women especially, whose bodies, minds, and spirits are being used up by themselves and by others for the briefest and often most heartbreakingly meager pleasures: a dance with a stranger; breaking into a house and eating pecan pie; a bowl of cherries. But never sex. These girls, and these women, give themselves up early and for every reason money, fear, to please others but never for love or even for their own pleasure. Human bodies, in these stories, are really never whole, flesh and soul: they are parts, pieces of lives that don’t get to be lived.

There is not an ounce of fat in this book, no more than one can imagine on these undernourished skeletons. The stories all start on fire: “Two nurses with scissors could make a man naked in eleven seconds,” is the celebrated opening line of the title story. “Dora’s disappeared again,” is the first sentence of the collection’s masterwork, “Necessary Angels.” They close with an equal lack of ceremony, as in “The Snow Thief”: “I’m a grown woman, an orphan, I have these choices.”

In between there is not much plot. Indeed, the sheer power of Thon’s vision and the hold the characters have over her seem to be driving her far away from the conventional structures of her earlier stories and novels. The stories in
First, Body are testimonies; the whole truth of the piece is in every line, which means that linear plot and character development are beside the point. Yet each one of them has a power that holds a reader transfixed. This collection feels like a book of photographs, and one reads knowing that every new page will contain unforgettable perhaps horrible images.

What is finally most distinctive about this work is the author’s willingness to become each one of her characters. Character, narrator, and author are the same person here. This fierce identification is manifestly felt in the prose, but it’s made even more explicit by a voice that breaks in now and again. “I’m Dora,” says the narrator in “Necessary Angels.” “I know you’re afraid of where I’m going when I tell you this. I’m afraid. But I can’t stop. Forgetting is the first lie, a little death.”

Melanie Rae Thon means every word here. Writing these stories cannot have been easy, and the process couldn’t have been much fun. Young writers and graduate students ought to read this book and ask themselves whether they might have the courage to take their careers into a place like this.

There are plenty of writers out there working for profit on the ugly edges of society, and I suppose we have to read some of them. But Melanie Rae Thon is a very different case. The girls in
Girls in the Grass, Iona Moon, and others went there first, and Thon followed them because she’d sworn to be honest to them. She hasn’t lost her compassion out there in her borderlands; she has gone out there because of moral purpose. I have admired Thon’s previous work, but
First, Body leaves me completely in awe.

Christopher Tilghman is the author of In a Father’s Place
and, most recently, the novel Mason’s Retreat.
He is completing a new collection of stories.