Uke Rivers Delivers: Stories
by R.T. Smith
Louisiana State University Press, 2006
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The myriad characters who populate the cosmos of R. T. Smith's second book of short stories,
Uke Rivers Delivers, range from a ukelele-playing dwarf, to a grandmother whose singing makes the church
hymnals too hot to hold, to one of Jeff Davis's cross-dressing compadres. Smith, the editor
of Shenandoah for Washington and Lee University, is also known for his poetry. Two books of
his poems, Trespasser (1996) and
Hunter Gatherer (1996) were nominated for the Pulitzer
In a 1998 interview with The Cortland Review,
Smith explains that "a fiddle break or sax
riff" sometimes provide him with
inspiration; those breaks and riffs abound
in this book. His words frequently want to
burst into song, but he wisely modulates
them, letting them slowly crescendo into a
full-blown jamboree. When Granny Annie sings
in "Tube Rose," her grandson is terrified:
The mosquito at my ear
dropped dead on the puncheon. The yard willow began to sway like warning of a mighty storm.
Soon the rim of the sky began to glow yellow like there was a distant battle, and the corn,
well, its tassels all sizzled and gave off smoke. I could hear muscadines popping in the
arbor, as the weathercock spun and the rusty old screen four feet from my face commenced
to glow violet and tremble. The peanut can on the hassock tumped over, spilled its Styx
River onto the floor, then rolled toward the trapdoor to the root cellar, and her voice
grown into a ripping howl.
The fifteen stories of this book all take place in small towns of Georgia
and Virginia, where God is often just a lightening bolt away and unseen forces work within
and without the characters. Even though most of the stories seem to be set somewhere in the
nineteen-forties, -fifties or -sixties, for many of these characters, the Confederate flag
still means something and the War Between the States may as well have ended yesterday. A
major theme in many of these stories is about finding a way home so as to escape the unwanted
chaos that fate has heaved in the way. A Confederate deserter in "I Have Lost My
Right," a refreshing take on a war story, seems to speak for many of the characters
in this book when he explains his reason for desertion, "I wanted to go home and
start over, live inside my dream of a regular farm lifesow and gather and grow
One of the impressive qualities of Smith's talent is the sheer number of
different voices he's imagined that give life to these stories, which take the form of
monologues. Smith offers up barely adolescent boys, frightened soldiers, old ladies, a
bitter and murderous Native American, cuckolded husbands, and more. Perhaps one of my
favorite voices belongs to Uke, a dwarf who narrates the story that shares the book's
title. Uke explains that he came "out of the oven fully-haired and rusty-looking,
yodeling and not more-sized than a bun," and supposes an Indian spirit cursed his
mother and caused him to be born that way. Uke's voice feels nearly pitch-perfect as he
tells us about his life of successes and sorrows. Early in life, Uke is a bit of an outcast
and must draw from his own reservoir of self-preservation to rise above the ostracization
from his neighbors and his abusive father. Musicin the form of a ukeleleis Uke's
real home. It saves him from total rejection and helps him through sad times, but not entirely.
One of the book's most moving passages comes from his realization of that at his first
I was planning to plonk and sing 'Amazing Grace,' but when I saw the
clouds brewing, I played 'Raindrops Keep Falling' in a dark way nobody had ever heard before,
and the sky broke and downpoured till they had to carry me back to the undertaker's truck.
You see, I thought something in my music could reach out into the other place and call her
back, but it turned out not so.
After that, Uke becomes a famous ukelele player, noted
for his "sassy tone" and a voice that is "world-wearied" with the "taint
of the Indian, a hint of the snake." When he encounters love and loss again in the form
of a cheating wife, Uke confronts the situation but ends up committing a rather grotesque
crime and loses his music entirely. Very often Smith's characters must pay a high pricean
arm, imprisonment, or even deathin exchange for escape from chaos.
It is chaos and confusion that Smith's characters constantly resist; most
do whatever they can to get rid of the problem and return to a placid existence. In "Jesus
Wept," which won a Pushcart Prize, an alcoholic father and itinerant preacher practices
his sermons in an outhouse, now called the Light House because it was once struck by lightning.
Daddy John Crow Epps's scarcely adolescent sons, Dock and Jester, run the family flower farm
while he proselytizes around the country. He calls his sons heathens for craving fried chicken
after endless nights of boiled okra. Once their mother takes off with a traveling salesman and
Daddy brings home Pandy Cleave, "a sulky gal from Macon," the boys begin to feel the
weight of too much turmoil in their lives. They're disgusted by Pandy who "sulls around the
house and is no use, paints her nails and writes silly songs, and after supper it's
jibber-jabber, jibber-jabber, jibber. He-dove and she-dove, coo and coo." With all that
yucky adult stuff going on, not to mention that their father drinks away the farm profits,
makes them get up with the roosters and recite from the Bible, that Pandy touches Jester "on
the gizmo" and then takes off after stealing all farm's cash, who can blame the boys for
climbing up onto the roof of their house and driving their fatherwho's turned into a
raving maniac at this news about Pandyoff the farm? When their spirit-filled Daddy is
gone, Jester wants fried chicken. "Pagans like us, you know," observes Dock. "Jesus
wept. I lock my eyes on a fox-colored hen, and we climb on down."
Smith may be at his lyrical best with "Dear Six Belles," a toe-tapping
love letter from a (obsessed) music fan to six female Cajun singers. "'Is you is or is
you ain't my baby?' The way you six can rasp that out puts all the human pain du monde in
syrupy words. It's jubilee sorrow you raise with your sweet beat and squeezebox chords.
Experience is what I'm saying, chères, drinking life straight in a full-gullet world-thirsty
swig." He pleads with them not to sell out to stardom and to keep their roots in sight.
While Smith's lyricism is spot on in this story, he occasionally loses control of it, as
in "Trousseau," the story about Jefferson Davis's cross-dressing aides. For
example: "I can still remember gazing up at him, backlit in the angled evening light,
his spurs and buckles like pirate treasure, his worsted trousers clean as a preacher's,
waxed mustache like a Shawnee bow ... his brass buttons like small suns." And, "Deep
eyes like a doe, a taste for ant-tiny whips of lace, a voice like wing cooled honey . . . and yet
the heart of a panther." By the time I finished reading this indulgent prose, I craved
something less gussied up.
"Docent," another piece with a strong voice, did not resonate with
me at first. Miss Sybil Mildred Clemm Legrand Pascal takes the reader on a tour of the Lee
Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee University. "I will be your guide and
compass," Miss Sibby announces,
on this somewhat dull, dark and soundless day, as
the poet says, in the autumn of the year. .
.and in case you are wondering about my hooped
dress of ebony, my weblike hairnet and calf-leather shoes, they are authentic to the period
just following the War Between the States, and I will be happy to discuss the cut and fabric
of my mourning clothing with any of you fashion-conscious ladies at the end of the tour,
which by the way will be concluded in the passageway between the crypt and the museum
Miss Sibby's tone seemed too much of a caricature to my Yankee ear until I
inserted the gravelly voice of my 105 year-old aunt from Alabama, whose grandfather fought
in the Civil War. However, my aunt, unlike Miss Sibby, would never reveal that General Lee
stepped "out to the garden to relieve himself in the starlight." But she would
surely mention, as Miss Sibby also does, that Lee looked for ghosts and that a statue of the
General reminds her of Disney's Snow White: "Since first I saw the princess in her
trance, I have thought of the General as someone under an enchantment," sighs Miss
Sibby, "awaiting the right deliverer, but perhaps it is the trumpet of the Second
Coming for which he awaits."
Smith's stories in general are delightful. The myriad voices in this collection
reflect an author fascinated by all different kinds of characters. Each story brings to the
reader a new voice and a way to approach life when it is interrupted by an unforeseen person
or wild forces. Taken together, these characters and stories make up a choir singing their
way from chaos to order, groundedness, and home.