rev. of Pilgrims by Elizabeth Gilbert

Issue #74
Winter 1997-98

Stories by Elizabeth Gilbert. Houghton Mifflin, $22.00 cloth. Reviewed by Don Lee.

Two things are certain in Elizabeth Gilbert’s first collection,
Pilgrims: her characters possess minds of their own, and they can talk. Oh, can they talk. Gilbert is adept enough with one-line zingers (“He’s too dumb to bat both his eyes at the same time”), but where she really shows her facility for dialogue is when the conversation is prolonged people lazily teasing each other beside a campfire or in a barroom, slightly addled by drink or love, never indulging in self-pity, but simply enjoying small moments of community.

In the title story, Buck is baited by a newly hired ranchhand, a nineteen-year-old woman from Pennsylvania named Martha Knox. At first, Buck thinks he has the upper hand on her he goes to a tree to relieve himself and says, “Shield your eyes, Martha Knox, I’m about to unleash the biggest thing in the Wyoming Rockies” but she soon plies him with little anecdotes, dropping sinister references to her father, until Buck asks breathlessly, “You didn’t kill him, did you?” Martha Knox sits down and pats his leg: “She sighed. ‘Buck,’ she said. ‘Honey.’ . . . ‘You are the most gullible man I know on this planet.’ ”

This resistance to melodrama is the essence of Gilbert’s craft. Not much happens in the book’s twelve stories, despite ample opportunities, and initially it seems that the lack of action or even epiphany, the absence of propulsion in events, is a flaw. Yet, collectively, the stories build up a gentle seduction, primarily because the characters are appealing witty, laconic, irreverent, and refreshingly uncynical.

One story states: “As an adult, Denny Brown would look back on his sixteenth summer and think that it was a wonder he was even allowed to leave his house. He would realize how woefully uninformed he was, how woefully unprepared.” This could be said of the majority of Gilbert’s characters young or old, male or female, redneck or urbanite and the fact that, naïve as they sometimes are, they don’t meet catastrophe at every turn, then live thereafter in better regret, illuminates Gilbert’s playful and forgiving vision of human nature.

In “The Finest Wife,” Rose, a beauty pageant winner from South Texas, has, to say the least, a somewhat promiscuous past: “She had developed a bit of a taste for certain types of tall, smiling local men in dark hats. Also, she had developed a taste for certain types of church-going men and also for left-handed men, and for servicemen, fishermen, postmen, assemblymen, firemen, highwaymen, elevator repairmen, and the Mexican busboys at the restaurant where she worked (who reverently called her La Rubia the Blond as if she were a notorious bandit or a cardsharp).” But Rose ends up happily married for forty-three years, and now, in her seventies, she is a kindergarten school bus driver. Only, one day, children do not appear on her route, all her former lovers do, and they climb aboard, joking, convivial, and appreciative.

The pilgrimages in this collection are remarkably varied, from a porter campaigning for the presidency of the local Teamsters union at a produce market in the Bronx to a Hungarian immigrant buying a supper club that features magic acts in Pittsburgh, but the manner in which Gilbert’s characters accept their fates is surprising and charming. Even when they are about to lose their livelihood, like Ellen in “Tall Folks,” when a strip club opens across the street from her tavern, meaning the sure demise of her business, there is room for celebration. She gets drunk with her young nephew, and she reminisces: “On the best nights, Ellen used to dance on that same bar with her arms spread open wide, saying, ‘My people! My people!’ while the men crowded at her feet like dogs or students. They used to beg her not to close. It would be daylight and they would still be coming in from across the street, begging her not to close.”