By Helen Scully.
Betty Superman, Tiff Holland, Rose Metal Press, 2011
At its best, short, short fiction combines the wiles of experiment with the economy of poetry. Winner of the Rose Metal Press Fifth Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest, Tiff Holland’s Betty Superman—a slim, elegantly-designed collection of nine interconnected stories—achieves this mastery by centering on the shifting power dynamic in one of the most fraught of human relationships: mother and daughter.
The first story, “Dragon Lady,” portrays Betty as a vain, domineering mother, both bully and coddler. Indeed, Betty—all bright colors, loud music, candy bars and cigarettes—is eccentric in the extreme, her personality too large to be contained by a family. With characteristic originality, “Dragon Lady” covers enormous territory with a mixture of comedy and frugality. The phrases What she wears; what she says; what she calls my friends; what she likes; what she does; how she is now preface lush mini-portraits of Betty. What starts as a power struggle between an adolescent narrator and her mother—a battle, really, with switches, hairbrushes, shoes—changes in a flash. By the end of the story, Betty has emphysema, and the daughter, knowing that her mother is going to die, “feel[s] ten again.”
Betty Superman is chock-full of such violent reversals. The title story opens first thing in the morning with Betty up to her obnoxious tricks, “dancing around [the daughter’s] room like some harlot, twirling, wrapping and unwrapping the blanket around her.” The daughter tries to go back to sleep, but Betty, now outside, throws rocks at her window and calls to her in Shakespearean verse. The daughter opens the window and, attempting to pour orange juice on Betty’s head, accidentally drops the glass, which “tumble[s] in slow motion down to Betty where it conk[s] her right between the eyes,” knocking her to the ground. Terrified, the daughter races to Betty’s rescue, but Betty is impervious to injury. The story ends with her singing to the radio as they drive to the emergency room.
Holland manages to fully populate her stories, though all the characters except Betty—pimps, transvestites, fathers, husbands, brothers—are secondary, transient, usually unnamed. The Texas backwoods that mother and daughter inhabit is also refreshingly well-drawn, from the aisles of the Walgreen’s, to the McDonald’s drive-thru, to the Cracker Barrel, to the gas station. Details such as a dead deer on the side of the highway, quickly consumed by buzzards, add poignancy to the characters’ mortality. Other stories explore how character can fluctuate within a fixed dynamic. “Hot Work” reveals Betty doing make-up for transvestites who slip into her beauty parlor after closing. “First Husband” shows the daughter learning to shoot with the man she’ll marry, feeling for the first time the liberation of firepower, and thinking how she can use her new-found skill to shoot Betty.
In spite of the unrestrained hostility, the stories build to a crescendo of mutual need. Hints of the daughter’s suicide attempt, coupled with an unspecified sickness that fells her around the time Betty is diagnosed with emphysema bring mother and daughter together like two ships passing in the night, granted only a brief time to share sympathetic waters. Even the most mundane errands represent huge trials for the ailing ladies, and the careful way they monitor each other’s weaknesses suggests profound love. Betty, stripped of pretense, sucks on oxygen and fake cigarettes—and finally tells her daughter the truth about her past. In “The Red Snapper,” she chatters about a promiscuous aunt, while the daughter “think[s] of ways to remember this story.” Sickness has affected her memory. In the sense that she may not be able to repeat them, “all [Betty’s] stories are safe with [her] now;” this makes her treasure the confidences even more. Whereas she “used to tune [Betty] out,” now she listens carefully, “learning about lesbians in the family, pee-hole stretching, dentures, affairs, orgasms, and digging up the family burial plot.”
In the “The Barberton Mafia” and “Self-Serve Unleaded,” small, protective gestures between mother and daughter suggest the all-knowing ease of two spinster sisters at the end of their lives. During a trip to Walgreen’s, Betty insists that her daughter take a shopping cart so she’ll have something to lean on if she gets dizzy. The daughter orders Betty’s eggs for her at the Cracker Barrel, “a little yolk, but not too runny and no crunchy brown stuff on the edges.” Betty’s cough worsens—sounding like “cats fighting, bad plumbing”—but the daughter is “no longer afraid.” The grace with which Tiff Holland arrives at this final peace is the book’s surprising marvel. Clocking in at only 33 pages, Betty Superman should be relished the way Betty eats one of her ubiquitous candy bars, on a plate with a knife and fork, cut “carefully into bites as if it were a steak.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Helen Scully’s first novel, In the Hope of Rising Again, was published by Penguin Press in 2004. Her numerous reviews and narrative nonfiction pieces have appeared in Art Voices Magazine and the Mobile Press-Register. She lives in New Orleans.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 10th, 2011.