Ellen Gilchrist’s ‘Acts of God’ and the Anxiety of Revisiting Authors We Loved as Teenagers

I was young when I first read Ellen Gilchrist’s writing. I was 15, at my sister’s in Stockholm, pawing through her elegant, built-into-the-walls bookcase, and there was one sea-green book with a photo of a girl on the cover who may have been about my age; certainly a sulky teenager, her legs too long for her cutoffs, perched on a second-floor open window, looking out into the distance. The title of the book was I Cannot Get You Close Enough. Between the wistful teen girl on the cover and the title, I was hooked.

The book had three novellas circling around the Hand family, a sort of southern version of the Kennedys. The Hands are people of wealth and priviledge, who have a summer home in a classily remote location in Maine. But in the first story, the rich eccentric aunt, Anna, a writer, finds a missing member of the family: Oliva DeHaviland Hand, the lovechild of her brother, a Native American teenager living in relative poverty in Oklahoma.

Olivia was beautiful and wild, smart as a whip, and she was about to receive the best news a teenager can get: you actually have a secret family and they’re all rich. Sure, it was because she was the forgotten lovechild of a fling between her saintly dead mother and her rogue father, but still, it’s a pretty glamorous proposition for the right kind of dreamy teenager. I related to Olivia, to her wild heart and her outsider status, to her smarts and her curiosity about a different life other than the one into which she was born. I read on, looking for more Olivia in the novellas, wanting to follow her anywhere. And then Gilchrist ends one story with this piece of writing:

I cannot get you close enough, I said to him, pitiful as a child, and never can and never will. We cannot get from anyone else the things we need to fill the endless terrible need, not to be dissolved, not to sink back into sand, heat, froom, air, thinnest air. And so we revolve around each other and our dreams collide. It is embarrassing that it should be so hard. Look out the window in any weather. We are part of all that glamour, drama, change and should not be ashamed.

Perhaps the writing reads purple. Perhaps it reads gorgeous and accurate. That said, imagine the impact of reading this kind of beautiful lament when you’re a teenager. When you are ready for life to begin, with all of the story and intrigue that’s sure to occur. By then, I was gone on Ellen Gilchrist. I was hers for life. Because she has a knack for the most luminous prose out of what’s a fairly plainspoken style. Which is why I didn’t even notice the awkwardness and the fancy-lady myopia of her books — they center around rich white southerners, mostly socialites who don’t need to work so much, and the class and race divisions are stark. She tries to get over it by describing outsider characters as exotically beautiful. It is still awkward.

I had read the bulk of Gilchrist’s work when I was in my teens. She wrote strong short stories and wobblier novels, circling around the same characters, who grow and age and feel like friends, from the Hand family to Rhoda Manning. Time passed and she was like a memory I had once, writing about friends that I once knew. I hadn’t thought about her much in years, but with the release of Acts of God, her first collection of short stories in eight years, I wanted to take another look at this author who meant so much to a different version of me. Would her writing still resonate?

acts of god ellen gilchristActs of God consists of ten short stories, many of them loosely centered around major traumas and revelatory events. It’s a series of stories about Gilchrist’s regular folks facing the big one, in various scenarios: Hurricane Katrina, the destruction following a tornado, terrorism, and the human horror we’re all destined for if we’re lucky — aging and mortality.

And while it sounds dark, the stories are laced through with good humor and hints of the miraculous. Some are explicitly so: “Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas,” is a story about five teenage volunteers who find a baby, alive, in the rubble of a tornado, and what happens as a result. One girl, Marie, may just end up as a writer, practicing what she’ll tell people and vowing, “I don’t want all my memories lost in some fog like most people’s are. I am capturing mine every chance I get.”

Some stories are less successful — following up the marvelous “Collateral,” about a young woman falling in love whose unit is called up in order to provide aid in Mississippi, with “High Water,” about a gay couple waiting out Hurricane Katrina on a trip in New Orleans, makes the latter look chatty and superficial, comparatively. The voice wasn’t as sharp.

But there is something — a magic that’s difficult to clarify, that may be corny in someone else’s eyes — to Gilchrist’s work that doesn’t come around often. Even if it didn’t thrum at the same urgent frequency for me, since I’m older, wiser, and less dreamily open to experience than the 15-year-old who first read her work. Gilchrist still has the power to turn a simple line into a profound insight on what it’s like to be human. Aging and death are the twin ghouls running throughout Acts of God, looming over the characters, and the result of looking into the void gives these stories wisdom and compassion, or to quote Gilchrist: “Glad to be alive in the only world there is, alive and eating and still breathing and not afraid really of anything that might happen next.”