Once upon a time, a student in one of George Garrett’s writing classes at the University of Virginia turned in a story about a girl in a black raincoat that was about a real girl in a black raincoat in the class. “It’s a good short story,” Garrett writes in the introduction to The Girl in the Black Raincoat, “but a lot of the class reacted unfavorably. It didn’t seem right to them to make fiction out of something so close and near.” In Garrett’s view, such a choice was neither right nor wrong but exemplary of the kind of choices creative artists always have to make.
So he set the whole class the assignment of writing a story or poem about girls in black raincoats. Soon after that, talk of the assignment went around the English department and spread out to a variety of Garrett’s friends and former students, and he started to get other stories about girls in black raincoats. It was kind of a game, “innocent and scoreless as Frisbee.” The rules were simple: there just had to be a girl in a black raincoat in the story or poem. Eventually, he had so much material that he decided to collect them into this anthology. “What little editing there was to do was in choices,” he writes in the introduction, “for there was far too much in the end to be in one book.” As for sequencing, Garrett took the arbitrary option of placing the stories in reverse alphabetical order by the author’s last name.
In this case, the arbitrariness of the whole exercise also proves serendipitous. As in many short story collections, a really good story may be followed by a forgettable one, but quality spikes up more often than down and there are no extended dull patches in the whole book. Also, Garrett’s contributors are a mix of recognized, unrecognized, and later-to-be-recognized names. Later Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Mary Lee Settle contributed a sketch, “Paragraph,” only lightly adapted from her memoir, All the Brave Promises (1966). The journalist and historian William Manchester contributed a rare piece of fiction, “Out in the Crazy, All Alone,” a monologue by a sad, lonely, and slightly drunk young wife contemplating adultery. Novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote contributed what is basically an old dirty joke in a flimsy wrapper of fiction. Leslie Fiedler wrote Garrett saying he was too busy to contribute a story and then proceeded to write the first of the “Four Academic Parables” included here. William Jay Smith, later a Poet Laureate, offerded two poems and his soon-to-be ex-wife, the poet Barbara Howes, contributed “Roselma,” a far better fable than any of Fiedler’s:
Her name was Roselma Pantry, from Tiffin, Ohio, a slender girl of medium height, presumably pretty, but as she was never without her long black mackintosh, topped by a sort of snood or hood, one could not be sure. The textile industry might have despaired had they known of her, for she never sported a tweed or jaeger coat, or even silk or gabardine; she out-minked, or out-foxed, no one; winter and summer, night and day, she trotted up and down those gravel paths in the same black fabric–composed more likely in a test tube than on a loom. Nights, it gave off a faint phosphorescent sheen; once at a college dance she floated by in the arms of the French professor, but still in her black apparel, now unbelted, which under the bright chaperoning lights was near diaphanous.
UVA faculty and former students understandably predominate, including Annie Dillard (a poem, “The Affluent Beatnik”) and her first husband, R. H. W. Dillard (a story, “The Little Man with the Long Red Hair”), and later Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Henry S. Taylor (one of the best stories of the bunch, “And Bid a Fond Farewell to Tennessee”), as well as lesser-known alumni such as John Rodenbeck, later a translator and expert on Egyptian literature (a wonderful story of unsuccessful college romance, “Keep Your Eye on the Feet”).
“The raincoat girl in all her guises and disguises” is, as Garrett writes, “erratic, inconsistent, contradictory, sad, whimsical, mostly irrational and often marvelous. And so is The Girl in the Black Raincoat. I’ll take this arbitary anthology over any deliberate one any day of the week.