University of Missouri
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Body Language By Kelly MageeUniversity of North Texas Press, 2006, 197 pp., $12.95

The stories in Kelly Magee's debut collection explore the compass of female sexuality, including among their protagonists Em, a half-Cuban lesbian in South Tampa; Gyp, a queer-identified woman in love with a MTF transvestite; Lucha, a ten-year-old migrant worker, instructed in kissing by an older girl; and Dana, a thirty-something actress who expects her good looks to get her places with the male executives of Orlando's nascent film community. Set mainly in Ohio and the Deep South, these eleven stories depict characters who are often stifled, either by their circumstances or by their own temperaments. When they finally act on their desires, they do so wildly, amid terrains whose racial and class complexities Magee renders skillfully. [End Page 169]

Contests of space are critical to a number of the stories in this collection. "All the America You Want" opens with an overview of the effects of the Urban Renewal Act on a South Tampa neighborhood. A year after the act has passed, the mostly Latino residents have become savvy to its gentrifying aims, as one by one the apartment buildings in which they live have given way to more expensive, smaller units. The most elaborate of these new homes is built by a wealthy Puerto Rican woman named Mandy. With her mother's prodding, Em, the story's protagonist, leaves her job at Merry Maids to clean for Mandy, and the two quickly become lovers. But when Mandy reveals that she owns Em's building, ideological differences surface between them, leaving Em conspicuously absent on the night that teenaged vandals sack Mandy's house.

Graffiti recurs throughout the collection as a means of staking claim: the walls of Em's apartment are spray-painted with a map of the United States, left behind by a former tenant. She leaves her own mark on the inside of the closet—the only blank surface remaining (another of Magee's characters writes on her bathroom walls). In "Vertical Mile," the Grand Canyon serves as a proving ground for both hikers and a teenaged gang that spray-paints its walls. One hiker plans to commit suicide by overexerting himself; another seeks to realize her dream of being the oldest woman to hike rim to rim; both are simultaneously coping with crises of sexual identity. The teenagers, meanwhile, come to the canyon by night to rappel inexpertly down its sides "for the chance to paint places no one had ever touched." Each character is knowingly risking life for notoriety. And with such high stakes, it is perhaps inevitable that they clash violently, even in this vast arena.

That the body is also a contested space is suggested by a number of the stories in the collection. "As Human as You Are Standing There" describes the cut-rate modifications that Leo, a drag queen, has made to his body; worse than these are the wounds he's courted in street fights. Like many of Magee's characters, Leo invites violence through his inflammatory behavior: watching him, Gyp, the story's narrator, fears that "this time, he wasn't going to let them let him get away." Gyp is uncertain of her feelings for Leo but fights desperately for him and against the forces in the story that would push them both toward neater identifications. In other stories, Magee mines those moments in childhood that mark "the start of your body parts getting the better of you." Lucha, the ten-year-old protagonist of the collection's title story, eludes her parents' attempts to treat her like a child, slipping away from them at a carnival in order to ride faster rides with older adolescents. She [End Page 170] receives her first kiss not from the boy who gropes her in the roller coaster line but from a girl who shepherds her past the ticket-taker's measuring stick. Lucha's sexual awakening is accompanied by increased desire rather than self-consciousness: at the top of a stilled roller coaster, in view of the rest of the carnival-goers, she wants more.

Lucha's lack of self-consciousness is indicative of Magee's assured tone throughout the collection. Body Language is never dogmatic in its treatments of race, class or sexuality; the stories work to complicate rather than simplify their subject matters, as evidenced by their consistently ambivalent endings. These are eleven stories written of liminal moments, concerned not so much with change as with the forces that impel it.

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