Dining withRobert Redford & Other Stories. By Tamra Wilson (Bristol, Virginia: Little Creek Books, 2011)
Reviewed by Heather Duerre Humann
If you take a dash of wit, a pinch of humor, and combine them with an eclectic assortment of lively Southern characters, you get Dining with Robert Redford & Other Stories. Tamra Wilson’s debut short story collection is a delightful book that offers glimpses into the day-to-day lives of folks from many different walks of life through its diverse grouping of largely dialogue-driven sketches. A particular strength of Wilson’s is her talent for convincingly and sympathetically giving voice to her characters, a feature of her writing which not only helps to develop her stories’ characters and make them more realistic, but which also allows Wilson to showcase her ability to compellingly construct multiple narrative voices. This skill, along with Wilson’s ability to hone in on the extraordinary moments in ordinary characters’ lives, makes this collection both readable and relatable.
Though all of the selections are set in the contemporary South, Wilson’s stories contain a hodgepodge of working- and middle-class characters. These range from Kim Walden, a dream interpreter from the opening story “The Smoking Cuban Woman,” to hair stylists, factory workers, deacons, and office clerks, like two of the women who appear in the story “Cross Training” – Doreen, who works “in receivables,” and Tillie, who does “payables” (148). Stories also feature small business owners, such as Cliff Hastings, owner of Quality Rent-A-Car, a man goaded by his wife into mistakenly believing that they’ve spotted Robert Redford at a local restaurant in “Dining with Robert Redford.” Cliff, prodded into doing so by his wife, Alma, interrupts a man they take to be the celebrity as he is eating his meal. Only after getting his autograph do they learn from their server that the man was really Mr. Richards, a real estate agent who “just plays along” when “people mistake him” for Robert Redford (61).
The theme of dining runs throughout many of this collection’s stories, as the book’s title implies. Indeed, food figures significantly into many of the selections, from “Democrat Cake,” which recounts how a cake baked by Charlene, a staunch democrat, ends up going home with the Republican governor’s wife, to “Squirrel Supper,” a story about sharing an unconventional meal with friends. Dining plays a major role in the story “Dick and Rhoda,” as well. An account of an aunt and her middle-aged nephew who live under the same roof coming to blows at the dinner table, this story reveals the intergenerational friction that is common in so many families, and it demonstrates how mealtime—for some families, the only time when real communication happens—can bring veiled hostilities to the surface. For many years, Rhoda tried the “sugar-coated approach to improving” her nephew, but had “failed miserably” (189). She finally has enough of him when he brings an uninvited guest to dinner—and she lets him know as much.
Beyond the dining theme, many other elements of day-to-day life help to build the conflicts within the stories in this collection. For example, “Priscilla the Meatpacker” revolves around a mother learning the results of her teenage daughter’s “standardized Career Pathways test” (17). “Running on Empty” is a story about a young woman who has to stop to refill her car’s gas tank in the midst of having a severe wardrobe crisis. Both of these stories demonstrate Wilson’s talent for recognizing the humor and grace of ordinary life.
Indeed, Tamra Wilson should be commended for her ability to take everyday encounters and turn them into extraordinary stories. In all, Wilson’s DiningwithRobertRedford&OtherStories is an impressive debut. Though she touches on a range of subjects throughout this collection, all of the stories are readable, engaging, and full of humor—and are sure to appeal to a wide readership.
Heather Duerre Humann teaches writing and literature at the University of Alabama and has published critical essays, short fiction and reviews in South Atlantic Review, African American Review, Studies in the Novel and other journals.