Corrina Wycoff had pretty much given up. She had a book of short stories that she couldn't find a publisher for, and a novel in progress that wasn't going well. She was sitting at her computer one day and, as she remembers, "I said, 'You know? I'm just going to call this a hobby.' And I closed the window and started playing video games. I said to myself, 'Forget it.' And then the next week I got this e-mail."
The e-mail was from OV Books, an imprint of Other Voices magazine that's distributed by the University of Illinois Press. They'd received Wycoff's manuscript of short stories, O Street, and they wanted to publish it. "I'm really pleased that the book has a Chicago publisher, because I got to go back to Chicago," where she went to college at the University of Illinois. "I feel really lucky compared to other people who've been published by a small publisher because I have literally no complaints."
The linked stories in O Street, which came out earlier this month, jump back and forth in time, in and out of various characters' heads, and between low-rent neighborhoods in New Jersey (where Wycoff grew up) and low-rent neighborhoods in Chicago. One character appears in every story: Beth Dinard, a single mother who runs away to Chicago on a Greyhound bus as soon as she finishes high school, to distance herself from her abusive mother. We find this out in the first story. The second story is told from the perspective of Beth's mother, Angela, a high-school dropout and schizophrenic (she believes First Lady Rosalind Carter is talking to her), who, after giving birth to Beth without a husband in the picture, becomes addicted, by way of her brother, to "the gorgeous relief of heroin."
O Street's strength is this fracturing of perspective. From the first story to the second, your sympathy shifts from the abused person to the abuser. At least until the title story, halfway through the book, where Angela is high and "laughing and laughing" while 14-year-old Beth is pinned down and raped by a group of men. As Seattle Times book critic Michael Upchurch wrote in a favorable review of O Street last week, "There's no getting around it: This is one grim, tough, upsetting book."
Wycoff herself is a single mother. Sitting in her kitchen on Capitol Hill—under a framed map of the world, while her 12-year-old son is playing on the computer in his bedroom—I begin to ask the obvious question, but Wycoff stops me.
"I won't answer that question," she says. "The what's-true-and-what's-not-true question. But it's not an autobiography." When I mention that a lot of the subjects in the book would lend themselves well to nonfiction—violence, poverty, drug abuse, single motherhood—she says, "If I wrote nonfiction then I couldn't make stuff up, and where's the fun in that?"
The tone of most of O Street is plain—not even bleak or plaintive, just plain. "The sentence-level stuff is something I started working on late," says Wycoff, who teaches English composition at Pierce College, south of Tacoma. Other fiction writers in Seattle "are so innovative at the sentence level, and I just don't have that. It's just not what comes out, even though I like to read that stuff and I admire it." Occasionally, her plainness achieves its own kind of poetry. From the last story: "'My mother died.' Beth's voice seemed to echo through the coffee shop, and the phrase got stuck in the ceiling fan, where it repeated itself. My mother died. My mother died. My mother died."
The virtue of the book is the way it deals with topics that have become clichés through characters who aren't clichés. The psychology in O Street is nuanced and feels true. In that last story, Beth—who once turned tricks but is now building an okay life for herself and her daughter—sees a shirtless male prostitute on the street and is "both pleased and ashamed to note, in his fear, that he had regarded her as superior."
The book turns lots of things upside down. Most of what's written about motherhood is "so ebullient and romantic," Wycoff says, "but there are a lot of mothers out there who don't feel that way about motherhood at all."
Corrina Wycoff reads with fiction writer Stacey Levine and poet Deborah Woodard at University Book Store (4326 University Way NE, 634-3400) on Mon April 30 at 7 pm, and it's free.