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‘Black Tickets’ Catches Young Women in No Man’s Land

Phillips was reporting from a place few Americans knew firsthand, a place about which, in her story “Country,” we read: “This ain’t the South, Billy muttered, hung over, his head in his arms on the steering wheel, This is the goddamn past.” Phillips’s stories have one foot in the modern America of the late 1970s and another in some old, strange, overgrown places.

It’s interesting to note that “Black Tickets” was published the same year that Breece D’J Pancake, an enormously promising young writer who was also from West Virginia, committed suicide with a shotgun. Few had yet heard of him.

A collection of his work, “The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake,” would appear in 1983 and make West Virginia seem for a moment, thanks to his work and Phillips’s, like something close to the beating heart of the world.

Many of the characters in “Black Tickets” are young women, still in their early or mid-20s. They’ve fled West Virginia for college or for boys or for kicks, but are back because of poverty, bad luck, sick parents.

In their dusty bedrooms, there are “cups from the Tastee-Freez labeled with dates and boys’ names.” These young women argue with their mothers about sexual freedom. One thinks: “Soon, this weekend. I’ll get a ride to the university a few hours away and look up an old lover. I’m lucky. They always want to sleep with me. For old time’s sake.”

Some of these lovers are newly returned from Vietnam, and scarred in unexpected ways. The fathers in “Black Tickets” are mostly absent, or linger menacingly at the margins.


James Nieves/The New York Times

There are 27 stories in “Black Tickets,” many only a page or two long. Some of the very short ones, the vignettes, seem like writing-school exercises. Others, though, intensify the spell this volume casts. The book would not be the same without them.

Here is the final paragraph of one of these very short stories, titled “What It Takes to Keep a Young Girl Alive.” Like so many Phillips paragraphs, it is so vivid that reading it is like stumbling upon a stash of someone else’s Polaroid photographs:

“Sue got off work and drifted down the midway in a wet heat, past the American-flag petunia gardens. Screamers rammed circles in the Whirl-A-Gig cars, pasted in stand-up Roll-A-Turn cages by their own gravity. They whistled and moved in droves behind raw hot dogs. At night she lay in the top bunk naked with the lights off. Fan on full aimed at her crotch while janitors lounged in front of the garages watching the rows of windows. Rod Stewart, scratchy and loud, combed his hair in a thousand ways and came out looking just the same.”

It’s strange, the associations we make with favorite books. The epigram at the front of “Black Tickets” is a line from “Streets of Arklow,” a song on Van Morrison’s record “Veedon Fleece” (1974). It reads: “Our souls were clean,/but the grass didn’t grow.”

There’s some Van Morrison in this book. It reminds me, too, of early records by the Roche sisters. “Tell me I’m OK,” a character begs in one of Phillips’s stories — the same demand that’s the peak moment of the Roches’ “Hammond Song.” Moments in “Black Tickets” presage Bruce Springsteen’s song “The River.”

Pool halls; church suppers; Veterans of Foreign Wars rummage sales; rows of workers’ shacks, now empty. Phillips catches the visual and emotional landscape of West Virginia. She catches, too, the things people do to check out when they can’t get out. These stories are filled with drugs and addiction, to speed and smack and sleeping pills and drugstore inhalers.

One of this collection’s most frequently anthologized stories, a tour de force titled “Lechery,” is related by a 14-year-old prostitute. “Though I have no money,” it begins, “I must give myself what I need.”

One of Phillips’s gifts is for evoking a kind of loneliness that’s almost unknown now in the wired world. She has a gift, too, for capturing the blurriness of young lives, how easily at that age we bleed into others.

Phillips went on to write a novel, “Machine Dreams” (1984), that traced the arc of a small-town West Virginia family’s life from the Depression through the Vietnam War. It’s probably her most fully realized book, and in many ways her masterpiece.

But “Black Tickets” is the book that so many of her admirers, myself included, have been unable to shake. It’s a young person’s book, in many ways, and I hope some young people find it.

In the ways that its young women are caught between worlds, it evokes for me a line from one of Edna O’Brien’s short stories: “I am far from those I am with, and far from those I have left.”

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