The Town of Whispering Dolls

The Town of Whispering Dolls

Finding Reality in Fiction

By Dan Wakefield, WTP Guest Writer

The Town of Whispering Dolls by Susan Neville (Tuscalossa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, March 2020; 216 pages; $17.95). Winner of FC2’s Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize.

Dan Wakefield

We always hear that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Sometimes fiction conveys a deeper truth. That’s what happens in the stories of Susan Neville’s new book The Town of Whispering Dolls.

The phrase “torn from the headlines” doesn’t seem to fit these artfully crafted tales. Who would imagine Vice President Pence to be a character in a quietly meditative story like “The Plume”?


“When I was a child and the gas tanks first came down, when the station closed, there were pools of black sludge on the ground by the church. No real problem there we thought at first, nothing dangerous, a minor inconvenience. Oil on your work clothes, gasoline in your car, oil in the petroleum jelly you used occasionally on your skin.

“… The owner of the gas station, now a vice president of the United States, kept making money from his failed business. His family was charged with clean-up, but the debt was too easily forgotten and the vice  president moved away from the source, presented himself to the country as clean of every sin. Our sin-tinged holy water was so very pure by comparison.”

That story takes place in Garden City, Indiana. Here is a Chicago Tribune headline for a July 14, 2018 story from Garden City, Indiana: “Cleanup of Pence family gas stations cost Indiana more than $20 million. . .” The Tribune reported that “Pictures taken in 1992 show standing pools of black sludge where two underground storage tanks were removed. . .”

Neville’s “Plume” story speaks of more than black sludge:

“The brain tumors came later. By the time they started blooming in our heads, muddling our responses, the oil company had been forgotten…

“It took a long time until we understood that the acid ate its way into the earth and formed a plume filled with the dissolving metal thorns and toxins, that the plume was making its way toward all the water in the world, feeding off its innocence, waiting to rise from the ground like the tornado in our dreams. Honestly, none of us stands a chance against it.”

Susan Neville, author of prose meditations on her beloved state, such as Indiana Winter and Sailing the Inland Sea, and her earlier prize winning story collection The House of Blue Lights, is not a “political writer.” Our increasingly apocalyptic times have sent her instinctively in search of meaning that underlies headlines.

The first of Neville’s stories that began this book were prompted by headlines about an outbreak of HIV in a Southern Indiana county in 2013. Politico later reported that “Experts proposed needle-exchange programs to prevent further outbreaks—providing clean needles to people who use drugs who otherwise might share and spread the disease—but state law prohibited needle exchanges… The only HIV testing provided in the area had been a Planned Parenthood clinic that closed because of state cuts supported by [Governor] Mike Pence.”

Despite the spread of HIV, Pence resisted calls from his own party’s state legislators, the CDC, and the State Health Department for a clean needle exchange, but finally in March of 2015 he said he would pray on the matter (had he not before?) and then declared a health emergency and allowed clean needle exchanges.

Politico commented, “Pence suggested that his actions as governor of Indiana were evidence of his qualifications to lead the novel coronavirus response: ‘I think it might be the main reason President Trump asked me to do this.’”

Neville’s story “Game Night” imagines the feelings of the mother of a drug-addicted child in that time and place before Pence allowed the clean needle exchange:    

“You know that in the states where you can’t buy syringes easily, you may run into trouble. It will not stop your play, but the play will be more dangerous. In those states the game is more like gambling. Oddly enough, gambling itself is often legal in those states. As you know, our state is one of them. I am so very sorry for this because it means, unfortunately, that you will quickly join the dark side of the game. My dear, my dear one. The risks will be greater for you. It can’t be helped.

“To put all the risks out on the table, know too that this is a state where you cannot exchange your needles at the end of play, even if the milky drip of liquid and blood is still clinging to the tip of the one you teammate hands you. It seems to be the thinking that the needle itself is what drew you to the game…”

There is comfort in these stories for their understanding of our tragedies, the kind of comfort that literature brings in telling us what we need to know beyond the headlines, no matter how painful. I remember in New York in the 1950s that I used to see the Dylan Thomas poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” scotch-taped to the kitchen or workroom or bedroom wall of people I knew.

Here is a paragraph I want on my own wall now: a mother’s words to her drug-addicted child in “Game Night”:

“. . .Dear One, Listen:

If you want to play, you must understand you’ve made a choice you will regret. Every day in the world you will tell yourself this is the last time you will succumb (the last dessert before the diet, the last purchase on a credit card, the last time you will sleep with him, the last lie you will tell, the last theft you will be forced to make, the last drink, the last injection, the last time the very last) and every morning you will wake in shame and the only thing that will ease the shame is more of the thing that caused it. I know this. . .”

Dan Wakefield is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter whose books include the memoirNew York in the Fifties, and the novel Going All The Way.

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