In my monthly guest blog written for Blue Mountain Publishing, I discuss my five favorite short stories of 2015. Please see the essay at this web site:
Perhaps the strongest element the author shares with her characters is the overwhelming desire to recreate and re-imagine the place where she grew up: a brave, cosmopolitan, outward-looking land that existed not so long ago. —Natalia Sarkissian
The ten, interconnected stories and accompanying vignettes in Mai Al-Nakib’s first collection of short stories take place in several countries—Japan, Lebanon, Palestine, France, and Greece—but are all ultimately connected to the author’s home country and one of the collection’s major characters, Kuwait, and how it has been dramatically reshaped by the forces of oil, war, and xenophobia during the past 60 years.
Reviewer Elliott Colla summarizes the collection:
”She writes of Kuwait on every page here, but it is as much an object of desire—or a dream—than that actual city-state that was taken away one day in August 1990. Similarly, these stories are testament to the fact that when Kuwait was returned to its inhabitants, it was broken. Al-Nakib endeavors to put the city back together again, but she also knows well that while literature can console, it cannot replace.”
This collection won the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s First Book Award in 2014, the first short story collection to win the award. The narratives are all set against the backdrop of socio-political events in the Middle East, including the invasion of Kuwait, civil war in Lebanon, and Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But their focus is primarily on the ordinary lives of people living through these events and their everyday concerns—adolescent love, marital infidelity, parent-child relationships, life-threatening illnesses, and coping with change.
Al-Nakib says the stories in The Hidden Light of Objects are not strictly autobiographical, but do include “autobiographical elements.” In an interview with the Kuwait Times, she explains:
“This is not an autobiographical collection, although aspects of my life and my experiences inevitably find their way into my writing. On the one hand, it’s impossible to escape the historical traces that make us who and what we are and that shape our perspectives on the world. On the other hand, fiction allows us to flee the confines of these determining factors. Fiction makes things up, it invents worlds, experiments with settings and characters and episodes as far away from ourselves as could be. Fiction creates bridges between far-flung people and places and times. It allows us to connect in ways that might never be possible otherwise (as a result of geographical or temporal or linguistic limits). I hope this is something my stories will do for readers.”
Numéro Cinq Reviewer Natalia Sarkissian elaborates on the autobiographical nature of these stories and their power to recreate place:
"Perhaps the strongest element the author shares with her characters is the overwhelming desire to recreate and re-imagine the place where she grew up: a brave, cosmopolitan, outward-looking land that existed not so long ago. The author and these stories—her objects—are a pathway to locate the glimmer, the light, the truth of what was and what still may be. These stories are our ticket there and her way home.”
Importance of Objects
Familiar objects—apples, postage stamps, marbles, etc.—are a recurring theme throughout these stories. ”Objects," said Al-Nakib in an interview with Jadaliyya, “have the capacity to trigger new or forgotten sensations which, in turn, can remind us of something we once understood or a way of life we once thought might be possible or a trajectory we never anticipated. In this sense, the world around us—forever extended—is indeed enchanted.”
In “Amerika’s Box” a young Kuwaiti girl collects American objects (a McDonald’s cheeseburger wrapper, a baseball card, a miniature Empire State Building, among other things) in a handmade box that represent the land for which she is named and for which she yearns.
In “Echo Twins” 18-year-old Mish’al and Mishari are finally allowed to see the contents of the locked box left by their unknown father to be opened only after their mother’s death:
“At midnight, in the white light of a moon turning waves into plains of snow, the twins carefully unwrapped their legacy. The muslin, brown from years of wind storms and rain, disintegrated to dust between their fingers. The tin was rusted, the lock no longer locked. The brothers caught their breath as they removed from the box a heavy object not immediately clear in the shadows along the shore. Mish‘al held it up to the moon.” (p. 52)
The mother in the title story passes her time imprisoned in a windowless cell in Iraq by remembering familiar objects from home: “Naming them, sorting them into categories, telling their histories, and trying to remember where they would be in my house…. A litany of objects. My home for a decade." (pp. 226-227) Meanwhile, her children in Kuwait “wrap themselves in the familiarity of her things” (a string of pearls, a Betty Crocker cookbook, her father’s books that smell of India) in an attempt not to dwell on what she may be enduring in prison but to keep her memory always present.
“Amerika’s Box” is the best story in this collection. It makes a powerful statement against war and its destructive capacity to change attitudes and destroy dreams.
Following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, Ahmed and Fatma decide to change the name of their youngest child and only daughter to Amerika “to commemorate their nation’s gratitude to America.” Although Amerika doesn’t exactly know what America is at the age of five, she knows it must be something special by the way other Kuwaitis exuberantly respond to her name. Watching satellite television, she begins to piece together images of the country for which she is named—baseball, cowboys, Halloween, Nancy Drew, tornadoes, etc. She becomes convinced that people who live in a country that stretches "from sea to shining sea" are happier than Kuwaitis.
Amerika begins a collection of 25 objects (among them a Tootsie Roll wrapper, Elvis pin, Abraham Lincoln penny, Winnie the Pooh Sticker and most importantly, a long list of American idioms) that represent her adopted land. While other Kuwaiti adolescents dawn headscarves and dream of children and marriage, Amerika refuses to cover her “rich, mahogany waves” and dreams of “travel and ambition, optimism and go-getting, mountain climbing and paragliding” (p. 207). While other students are discouraged from reading anything other than the Qur’an, she immerses herself in Harriet the Spy, Sheila the Great, and Nancy Drew books that “allow her to imagine new worlds in words.” (p. 203)
But when the twin towers of World Trade Center topple in 2006, Kuwaiti attitudes toward the United States take a dramatic reversal. Instead of inspiring optimism, Amerika’s name now “triggers fury and furrowed brows.” Amerika finds her American dreams quickly beginning to turn into a “half-knit sweater unraveling.”
"Playing With Bombs" is also a powerful, heartbreaking story of the intensity of young love destroyed when the protagonist is coerced into a suicide bomb plot that goes awry. Interestingly, the story is narrated from the viewpoint of the 15-year-old Minr after his tragic death. He begins his narrative with this compelling thought:
“Death is not what they promised. No one-way ticket to paradise. No special dispensation for martyrs. No houris. Those houris were supposed to be awesome. I looked all over for them after the blast. Nothing.” (p. 83)
And ends it with equally sorrowful regret over the futility of his youth wasted on violence:
“Life is moist encounters in a back alley at midnight, not boys listing guns, playing with bombs. No promises of heaven and houris. Enough. We want to see and hear everything, to dance until the sun rises with a girl in a silver dress. We want to gallop full speed ahead, the sheriffs of youth and glory. Not this darkness, this weight on my chest. Not this ending, not for us.” (p. 100)
Mai Al-Nakib’s Writing Style
Al-Nakib is an absorbing storyteller who writes with insight and beauty. She has the ability to depict the everyday lives and concerns of characters while painting a portrait of her home country in the background that never overshadows but clearly illustrates how its evolution has altered the lives of Kuwaitis. I found the beginnings and endings of her stories to be especially strong, which I consider one of the essentials of a well-written short story.
About Mai Al-Nakib
Mai Al-Nakib is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Kuwait University. She was born in Kuwait but lived in the United States until the age of six. She returned to earn a PhD in English Literature from Brown University. After completing this collection, Al-Nakib is now working on her first novel.
Select The Hidden Light of Objects Reviews
“It’s a forgotten place—or a place that’s never thought of to begin with.”
Mexican-Americans living in California’s Central Valley populate the ten interconnected stories in Manuel Muñoz’s Faith Healer of Olive Avenue. They live on the wrong side of town—many on the same street—where houses are rundown, failing schools are in disrepair, and neglected yards are full of weeds. They clean other people’s houses and wait tables. They drive Cadillacs but have backyards full of junk. They do time to prison. They live in shabby motels. They live with debt, disappointment, deception, and denial.
And some of them are gay.
Muñoz was born into a family of farm workers who still live in the Central Valley town of Dinuba where he was born, a place he describes in an interview with the Harvard Review as “a forgotten place—or a place that’s never thought of to begin with” which nevertheless remains “a reservoir of creativity for me."
When Muñoz visits his family he explores his hometown, taking notes and gathering ideas for characters and story plots. ‘The place was so formative,” he explains, “because I was trying to escape it for so long. It took moving away to make me yearn for my town.”
Mother-son and father-son relationships are the focus of many of these stories. In “Lindo y Querido,” a mother cares for her dying son after his involvement in a motorcycle accident. Only after his death does she find letters hidden under his mattress indicating Isidro had a romantic relationship with the driver. Although she cannot save her son, through letters written in English that she cannot read (“The closing Love, Carlos, says more than anything else”) the mother comes to understand and accept his sexual orientation. (p. 19)
In “Bring Brang Brung” Martin suddenly finds himself a single father after his partner’s unexpected death. Ironically, the death occurs at the same time that Martin was beginning to feel isolated and in need of freedom. But moving back to the Valley from San Francisco, he will reconnect with his sister, also a single parent with a troubled adolescent son, and accept his new role. The father in the title story lovingly cares for his son who is injured on the job in a fork-lift accident while the father’s lack of compassion in “When You Come into Your Kingdom” indirectly contributes to his son’s suicide.
Among the many issues that challenge Muñoz’s characters is sexual orientation, but it is never center stage. Homosexuality quietly rests in the background, often unspoken and not acknowledged, but always present as a defining trait of several characters.
My Favorite Story
“When You Come into Your Kingdom” is a heart-breaking story of a father’s failure to understand the emotional fragility of his overweight son and his subsequent loss of daughter and wife following the son’s suicide. Santiago reluctantly takes a week’s leave from work several months later, retracing the family’s vacation path to the ocean by himself, even renting the same motel room and standing on the balcony from which his son jumped to his death below. “Santiago knows he has come here to understand how Alejandro could have looked at such a miraculous horizon—the sheer blue line of the ocean meeting its own impossible expanse—and seen, instead, an exit.” (p. 101)
Standing in the doorway, Santiago views the world as his son saw it for the last time and feels a similar draw to that felt by his son:
"Santiago stands there and sees how he is not capable of forgiving himself, but at least he accepts his own fear. His son was a lonely child. Santiago accepts that he is lonely, too, and always has been. Loneliness is greater than any anger, any shame he has ever felt. Greater, in fact, than love. He can see how his son saw, and he knows what it is to be him and prove incapable of resisting his own body, how his hands and feet could move forward as if on their own." (pp. 102-103)
Although reliving the tragedy is agonizing for Santiago, this introspective experience allows him an opportunity to explore his grief and better understand his son, even if it is too late to restore a relationship with him.
About Manuel Muñoz
Growing up in a Hispanic family in California’s Central Valley, Manuel Muñoz did not learn to speak English until he began kindergarten. He would later win a scholarship to Harvard, arriving with only $80 and feeling very intimidated by his his richer and more sophisticated classmates. Although Muñoz had intended to be a high school English teacher when he entered college, it was in his creative writing classes that he “learned that writing could be my life.”
Muñoz is currently serving as a professor at the University of Arizona-Tucson teaching writing. He is the author of one novel and two short story collections as well as the recipient of several literary awards.
Selected The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue Reviews
“If something can begin millions of years ago on Mars and somehow, miraculously find its way to my father, then why not something simpler, like happiness, which happens every day right here on earth.”
"A Gram of Mars," p. 14
This impressive debut won the 1997 Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction. The female protagonists in the collection's eight stories, many of whom narrate their own first-person experiences, are mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, lovers, and friends coping with situations that have complicated their relationships, friendships, and directions in life.
In the title story an adult daughter, visiting her father after moving across the country two years ago, struggles with her father’s reluctance to accept her mother’s loss of love for him and his inability to accept responsibility for his life. In Hagenston’s quiet but powerful ending, it is what father and daughter cannot confide to each other that will define the future of their distanced, strained relationship. “I can’t tell him,” the narrator writes, “that my worst fear is a future as empty and terrible as this, and that sometimes I think I can feel myself being pulled toward it, caught in the orbit of his sorrow.” (p. 28)
In “Till Death Do Us Part” after witnessing her mother marrying three times and her older sister deciding that “her particular brand of happiness did not include a husband,” Joyce concludes that falling madly in love is a “sickness, similar to the flu. It passed soon enough, then you recovered and went on with things. It was what got people like Kathy and her mother into trouble.” (p. 58) So she chooses predictability over passion, and repeats the expected “I do” as ambivalent thoughts swirl in her head.
The jilted young wife in “Holding the Fort” stalks her adulterous husband after their separation, even to the point of entering the house while he is asleep and slipping items into a duffel bag to tote away in a defiant act of retaliation:
"While he sleeps, she moves silently through the house, shining her flashlight, taking objects and putting them in the bag—coffee filters, the batteries from his Walkman, the light bulb from the bathroom. She takes the toilet paper, the can opener, the remote control. Small things. Replaceable things that he will notice missing, that he will miss." (p. 78)
In two linked stories, “Parking Lot Ham and Other Acts of God” and “Fishhook Girl,” a mother and daughter cope in different ways with the societal limitations imposed upon them by being the wife and daughter respectively of a small town minister.
In “Parking Lot Ham and Other Acts of God” Carrie realizes she must hide her ambivalence about religion when her husband quits his corporate job, follows a vision, and becomes a minister.
"There is a part of her that wants to be the best minister’s wife Wickerville, Maryland has ever had. She wants to be known for her charm and her compassion and her sympathetic ear—none of which, as yet, she’s had a chance to employ.
Then there is that other part of her that wants to be run out of town. There are certain things she’s never done before, and now she suddenly wants to. Smoke cigarettes, for instance. Walk around in a bikini. Drink martinis in the tub. Flirt with strangers in parking lots. She wants to tell the ladies all about the wicked, tawdry past that isn’t hers, complete with topless bars and Parisian opium dens, if there are such things. Topless Parisian opium dens. She wants to be Wickerville Methodist Church’s dirty little secret: the minister’s wife who just gets in her red Toyota one day and keep son driving, forever and ever, amen." (p.10)
Although she can occasionally “feel her true self creeping back out of the shadows,” Carrie is learning to play the restrictive roles expected of her as wife and mother with only occasional outbursts that express her true angst.
Carrie’s daughter, Wendy, experiences a similar oppression in “Fishhook Girl,” leading an adolescent life trapped in dull ordinariness. Realizing she cannot escape her bland fate, Wendy escapes vicariously by convincing her best friend to run away from her dysfunctional family. Wendy arranges financing for the trip through church donations she steals from Sunday morning collection plates. As Annie departs, Wendy envisions herself as the runaway instead, a fantasy she will carry into adulthood:
"Sometimes I think about my other, phantom life, reeling itself out in the shadowlands of possibility. I know how it begins: I get out of the car instead of Annie; I take the duffel bag from the trunk, and the manila envelope of money; we hug each other; I give her the car keys and say, 'I’ll call you from someplace. I disappear.'" (p. 162)
The title story is my favorite in this collection. Hagenston captures the awkwardness of a grown daughter as she visits her divorced parents for the first time in two years, trying to soothe her father’s anguish as he learns his wife is about to remarry and celebrate her mother’s easier happiness. Her father’s inability to accept reality and financial irresponsibility (including the charged purchase of a $3,000 piece of Mars) place the daughter in the reverse role of parent, uncertain how much to intervene in her father’s life beyond sending care packages to insure he has food. “If something can begin millions of years ago on Mars and somehow, miraculously find its way to my father,” she wonders, “—then why not something simpler, like happiness, which happens every day right here on earth.” (p. 14)
The ending of this story is especially poignant as father and daughter drive in silence, carrying the last of his possessions from his ex-wife's house, each unable to express what they are feeling with the other. She can’t tell her father about how she is unhappy with her decision to move to Arizona and how she worries that her own future might be as bleak as his. At the same time he can’t express to his daughter his continued hope for the impossibility that his former wife will love him again, has lack of money to pay the rent, and most of all, his wish that she would stay. For now, she senses it is enough for the two of them to simply be together: “The sky vaults over us and silence settles down, like a pact we’ve made together," she writes, "like a precious, immeasurable weight.” (p. 28)
Becky Hagenston's Writing Style
Hagenston writes in a lyrical yet tightly constructed style with endings that both clinch and zing. She creates strong characters who are flawed and often belong to very dysfunctional families but yet are very human. Hagenston often writes in first-person, present tense, which gives her stories a personal feeling of immediacy.
Her descriptions are packed with imagery. Describing her father’s haphazardly furnished basement apartment in “A Gram of Mars,” the narrator writes: “Everything seems mismatched and displaced, as if the furniture itself is visiting from somewhere else and wishes it could go home.” (p. 4)
In the collection’s foreword, Hagenston says that her stories often have a starting point in real life. Her mother was actually given a ham in a parking lot and her father owns a small piece of Mars. She comments: “My characters don’t always understand what’s happening to them, what they’ve lost or even what they’re looking for. These stories are guided by own search for what’s most important, the things I need for the happiness my characters don’t always find.” (p. xii)
About Becky Hagenston
Becky Hagenston is an Associate Professor of English at Mississippi State University and editor of the Jabberwock Review. She has published numerous short stories and won awards for both of her published collections--A Gram of Mars and Strange Weather, winner of the 2010 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. She lives in Starkville, MS.
Selected A Gram of Mars Reviews
Nathan Poole has a "habit of looking closely and thinking deeply."
“Writing is a manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.” --John Gregory Dunne
Very few beginning writers can afford to quit their day jobs to follow their calling full time. As Lorrie Moore wisely advises in her short story “How to Become a Writer,” “First try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher.” While some new writers are affiliated with academia, others support their habit with more traditional blue collar jobs.
Nathan Poole falls into the latter category of writers. Although he has received several academic fellowships, Poole has primarily worked as a plumber and carpenter to earn a living. In Father Brother Keeper, winner of the 2013 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, Poole turns from manual labor to demonstrate his creative skills in crafting language.
Set primarily in the often harsh rural landscape of southeastern United States, these stories explore individual and family issues that challenge characters, often over several generations. In “The Firelighter” and the title story protagonists have to face the failures that have shaped their lives and the decisions they have made that have led into a downward spiral. In “Year of the Champion Tree” a young man is learning to cope with the suicide of his brother while the young boy who narrates “Stretch Out Your Hand” is learning to cope with the unexpected recovery of his sister after a bout with raw milk fever claims the life of her best friend.
“The Strength of Fields” contrasts two brothers’ responses to the realization that their father, who has abandoned his family, is mentally ill. In “Fallow Dog” a young man faces the disappointing truth that his late grandfather was not who he believed him to be when he discovers badly abused bait dogs on his property. At the end of “Swing Low Sweet Chicken Baby” the protagonist is hit with the startling results of his male fertility test and the reality that he may be alone for a long time.
Parent-child relationships are at the heart of three stories: “They Were Calling to One Another,” “Lipochrome,” and “Silas.” In each of these stories parents are learning accept their children, who have become very different individuals than they imagined. The father-daughter estrangement in “A Map of the Watershed” is fueled by the protagonist’s realization that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Shelf-Awareness Reviewer Julia Jenkins summarizes the collection accurately and concisely:
The stories all feature people living simply, accommodating change if not embracing it, and struggling to move forward through whatever life hands them. Poole's voice is original, authentic and starkly honest; he is clearly compassionate toward his characters even as he walks them through terrible everyday calamities.
Two dramatically different stories are my favorites in this collection: “Fallow Dog” and “Silas.” “Fallow Dog” is an edge-of-your-seat, emotionally charged story in which a young man makes a startling discovery about his late grandfather’s abuse of animals, the truth made even worse by his first falsely accusing a neighbor of the brutality. Jimmy’s compassion for the bait dogs and awakening to the capability of human evil, even among his blood kin, make this story especially strong.
“Silas” is a much quieter, character-driven story about a father’s acceptance of his unusual son. Silas is fourth in line to inherit his family’s pecan farm in Georgia but cares nothing about agriculture, to his father’s dismay. He has “one too many bad habits” for his father to understand. He runs naked through the pecan grove in the middle of the night, eats food on his plate clockwise, and stares at his hands held beneath his bathwater for hours. But Silas also has artistic talent which his father discovers and embraces, as he begins down the path to acceptance.
Nathan Poole's Writing Style
Nathan Poole writes in a lyrical, poetic style that is rich with analogy imagery. Even when the situation is harsh, his writing is graceful, calm, and smooth. Poole writes with what Banner Reviewer Adele Gallogly describes as “tranquil intensity.”
Image describes Poole as “a contemporary southern voice that feels at once strange and familiar. His prose has a generous lyricism, an unapologetic love of beauty, and an unhurried pacing that feel classically southern, but a style and freshness that are his own.”
Here are a few of my favorite passages that illustrate his style:
“The smells came late that summer and left him astounded, muttering. He had known this was coming, had felt the tremors in his mind and seen familiar objects—his can of shoe polish and his TV remote—transformed in his hand into strange artifacts.” (“A Map of the Watershed,” p. 3)
“From the road these abandoned tracts—their rotund fields rising and falling away in succession—appeared like conquered giants, large slain things left on their backs in the sun, showing their swollen and furrowed underbellies.” (“Anchor Tree Passing,” pp. 74-75)
“But there was another side, he realized, a hemisphere waxed always away from him, the tidal lock of an unlit landscape that he couldn’t map or reckon with. “ (“Silas, p. 89)
“It started at the very top of his head and widened in the center as it slanted toward his right eye. He brought the hand back in front of his face and rubbed the blood between his thumb and forefinger like he would antifreeze or motor oil, testing the viscosity.” (“Swing Low Sweet Chicken Baby,” p. 166)
About Nathan Poole
Nathan Poole has worked as a plumber and carpenter for much of his adult life. He has now turned to the craft of writing and is serving as the 2014-15 Beebe Fellow at Warren Wilson College, where he earned his MFA. Poole also considers himself to be an amateur theologian and dendrologist.
Father Brother Keeper is Poole's first short story collection and was named the 2013 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction award winner. His first novella, Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost, was awarded the 2014 Quarterly West Novella Contest. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina.
Selected Father Brother Keeper Reviews
"Fiction is about longing and empathy.”
--Kirstin Valdez Quade
The ten short stories in Kirstin Valdez Quade’s debut collection are mainly set in small Catholic, Mexican-American communities in New Mexico where "Catholicism mingles with Southwestern folk beliefs." While some of Quade’s characters embrace this heritage, others seek to break free from what they perceive as a burden.
The title story is a coming of age tale of a young woman’s first experience at an annual fiesta in Santa Fe. The fiesta offers the possibility of a more exciting life for a plain girl from a rural town where nothing seems to happen. “If Frances’ life was to be a novel — as Frances fully intended,” Valdez Quade writes, “then finally, finally, something might happen at the Fiestas that could constitute the first page.” (p.88) Something happens—but not what Frances anticipated.
Class distinctions present painful realities for women characters in “Cannute Commands the Tides,” “Mojave Rats,” and "Jubilee." Although Monica tries to convince herself she and her family won’t live forever in a trailer park surrounded by trashy people she calls “Mojave Rats,” whom she imagines as sordid victims of mental illness, violent crime, and shattering personal tragedy, she has no evidence that her husband’s geological expeditions will guarantee an escape from Shady Lanes RV Park. And in "Jubilee" Andrea realizes that no matter how hard she tries, she will always be defined by her birthright: "She'd forever be checking ethnicity boxes, emphasizing her parents' work: farm laborer, housekeeper. Trying to prove that she was smart enough, committed enough, pleasant enough, to be granted a trial period in their world." (p. 195)
Parental abandonment are major forces shaping characters’ lives in “The Guesthouse,” “The Manzanos” and “The Five Wounds.” In “The Guesthouse” to a man who returns to Albuquerque after his grandmother’s death discovers his estranged father has been squatting in her guest house with a pregnant boa constrictor.
My favorite story in this collection (Quade’s first published short story) is the masterful “The Five Wounds,” in which Amadeo Padilla is chosen to carry a heavy cross in the Holy Week re-enactment of Christ’s Passion that has become an annual event in his small New Mexico hometown.
Amadeo, unambitious, unemployed and still living with his mother at the age of 33, is a "loser in need of redemption":
This is no silky-haired, rosy-cheeked, honey-eyed Jesus, no Jesus-of-the-children, Jesus-with-the-lambs. Amadeo is pockmarked and bad-toothed, hair shaved close to a scalp scarred from rights, roll of skin where skull meets thick neck. You name the sin, he’s done it: gluttony, sloth, fucked a second cousin on the dark bleachers at the high school. (p. 58)
Amaedo is taking his role very seriously. He believes that if he can just pull off a convincing performance on Good Friday, including having nails pummeled through his hands (a feat only one other community “Jesus” dared decades ago), that he might redeem himself in the eyes of the community. “Total redemption in one gesture,” he thinks, “if only he can get it right.” (p. 74)
But as Amaedo is practicing his role on Holy Tuesday, his abandoned daughter turns up on his doorstep, 15-years old and pregnant. The father-daughter reunion adds another twist to the story that is both humorous and prophetic. The ending sends a heart wrenching bullet.
Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Writing Style
Kirstin Valdez Quade writes in an engaging storytelling style that captures the diversity of people and the region of northern New Mexico. All of the stories focus on family relationships, often strained with large doses of emotional intensity and pain. Quade’s quirky details and dark humor add levity to some of the heavier themes such as child abandonment and family estrangement.
About Kirstin Valde Quade
Kirstin Valdez Quade grew up in New Mexico in a region where her family roots date back to 1695. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. She was a Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University and teaches writing as the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan. She is a winner of the "5 Under 35" award from the National Book Foundation in 2014.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Quade said of her writing: “I've always been so interested in religion and faith. As a child I always spent a lot of time with my older relatives and my extremely Catholic grandmother and great-grandmother. And yet my father is a geochemist so I have this other very scientific background as well. Certainly I think one of the reasons I'm interested in faith is that faith is so much about longing. It's about longing for transcendence, it's longing to be closer to the infinite and longing to connect with others; it's about empathy. And I think that's also the project of fiction. Fiction is about longing and empathy.”
Selected Night at the Fiestas Reviews
That’s a nice thing about writing about Wyoming. It is a place with dark humor, and dark humor fits here even though Wyoming people like to think that they’re jolly and happy and living the perfect life. There are plenty of real-life ironies and twists of fate that just knock your socks off.
Close Range is the first of three short story collections Annie Proulx has written about Wyoming, including Bad Dirt (2004), and Fine Just the Way It Is (2008). Several stories in this collection have won awards. "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Mud Below" are O. Henry Prize winners while "The Bunchgrass Edge of the World" was included in the Best American Short Stories 1999. "Half-Skinned Steer" was included in both Best American Short Stories 1998 and chosen as one of the Best American Short Stories of the Century. "Brokeback Mountain" won a National Magazine Award.
New York Times Book Review Reviewer Richard Eders captures Close Range: Wyoming Stories perfectly as he writes:
“The strength of this collection is Proulx's feeling for place and the shape into which it twists her characters. Wyoming is harsh spaces, unyielding soil, deadly winters, blistering summers and the brute effort of wresting a living out of a land as poor as it is beautiful.”
Wyoming is “dangerous and indifferent ground:,” writes Proulx, “against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere. No past slaughter nor cruelty, no accident nor murder that occurs on the little ranches or at the isolate crossroads with their bare populations of three or seventeen, or in the reckless trailer courts of mining towns delays the flood of morning light. Fences, cattle, roads, refiners, mines, gravel pits, traffic lights, graffiti’s celebration of athletic victory on bridge overpass, crust of blood on the Wal-Mart loading dock, the sun-faded wreaths of plastic flowers marking death on the highway are ephemeral. Other cultures have camped here a while and disappeared. Only earth and sky matter. Only the endlessly repeated flood of morning light. You begin to see that God does not owe us much beyond that.” (p. 97)
This is a brutal land where, during an intensely cold winter, “everything freezes from God to gizzard.” (p. 83) Streets have names like Poison Spider Road and sparsely populated towns are called Pick It Up or Buckle. People are named Scrope, Muddyman, Elk, and Tick. The state’s unwritten motto is “take care a your own damn self.” (p. 149) Wyos such as Riley (“A Lonely Coast”) feel we need to build a “wall around the state and turrets with machine guns in them” (p. 191).
The violence of the land creeps into the soul of its inhabitants. “Wyos are touchers, hot-blooded and a quick, and physically yearning,” write Proulx. “Maybe it’s because they spend so much time handling livestock, but people here are always handshaking, patting, smoothing, caressing, enfolding. This instinct extends to anger, the lightning backhand slap, the hip-shot to throw you off balance, the elbow, a jerk and wrench,, the swat, and then the serious stuff that’s meant to kill and sometimes does.” (p. 193). Gay cowboys are bludgeoned with tire irons (“Brokeback Mountain”); mentally disturbed men who expose themselves get castrated with dirty knives (“People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water”); unfaithful lovers are shot (“The Lonely Coast”); women have rough marriages and carry bruises (“The Lonely Coast”); and children grow up without the security and nurturance of loving parents (“The Mud Below”). Men and women work a never-ending stream of low-paying, non-fulfilling jobs, so focused on survival that they are oblivious to the events that happen outside of Wyoming’s borders (“Job History”).
Wyoming is the country’s ninth largest state but has the least population. It can be a miserably lonely place. Ottaline (“The Bunchgrass Edge of the World”) longs to know what is happening in the outside world, but her only source of information are the voices on the police scanner. Mero (”The Half-Skinned Steer”), Diamond (“The Mud Below”), and Ras Tinsley (“People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water”) flee their native homeland as soon as they are old enough while others, like Car Scope (“Pair a Spurs”) cannot imagine life anywhere else. After living his first 40 years on the same ranch, Scope “suffered homesickness when he went to the feed store in Signal.” (p. 151)
The heart-breaking “Brokeback Mountain” is the collection’s best story and one of the finest in contemporary American literature. This award-wining story explores the relationship that evolves between two ranch hands who know their cowboy culture will never allow them to survive if they publicly acknowledge their passion for each other. They each establish traditional marriages, have children, and work jobs but the intensity of their feelings never ebbs, consummated only during occasional, passionate “fishing trips.” Ennis and Jack live apart, knowing that in Wyoming “if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.” (p. 283)
Equally dark and startling as it gathers intensity toward a tragic climax is the story of another Wyoming misfit in “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water.” At the age of 16, Ras, prone to asking questions no one could answer and driven by a yearning for travel, leaves home and “neither returned home nor wrote” until an automobile accident forces him home five years later, disfigured and mentally disturbed. But the neighboring Dunmires, who disdain anyone who doesn’t measure religion by the horse they ride, take matters into their own hands when Ras begins exposing himself to area females.
Annie Proulx’s Writing Style
Proulx’s writing style is beautifully dense and richly descriptive, necessitating slow reading, but it is worth the effort. In “The Half-Skinned Steer” you can feel the intensity of the freezing cold that envelops Mero as he succumbs to the unforgiving elements:
“Onto the high plains sifted the fine snow, delicately clouding the air, a rare dust, beautiful, he thought, silk gauze, but there was muscle in the wind rocking the heavy car, a great pulsing artery of the jet stream swooping down from the sky to touch the earth. Plumes of smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air, elegant fountains and twisting snow devils, shapes of veiled Arab women and ghost riders dissolving in white fume. The snow snakes writing across the asphalt straightened into rods. He was driving in a rushing river of cold whiteout foam.” (p. 31)
Similarly, you sense the agony of Diamond in “The Mud Belo” as he is jerked around by a bull during an ill-fated rodeo ride:
“Diamond was jerked high off the ground with every lunge, snapped like a towel. The rope was in a half-twist, binding his folded fingers against the bull’s back and he could not turn his handover and open the fingers. Everything in him strained to touch the ground with his feet but the bull was too big and he was too small. The animal spun so rapidly its shape seemed to the watchers like mottled streaks of paint, the rider a paint rag. The bullfighters darted like terriers. The bull whipped him from the Arctic Circle to the Mexico border with every plunge.” (72)
Sometimes the quiet beauty of the land contrasts with the horrific actions committed by Proulx’s characters. Following Ras’s castration in “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water,” another day dawns in Wyoming with quiet radiance:
"The morning light flooded the rim of the world, poured through the window glass, colored the wall and floor, laid its yellow blanket on the reeking bed, the kitchen table and the cups of cold coffee. There was no cloud in the sky. Grasshoppers hit against the east wall in their black and yellow thousands." (p. 115)
It seems as if the Wyoming landscape, whether cruel or benign, always triumphs, regardless of what its inhabitants may do.
Proulx’s characters are so authentically crafted and often dismaying distinctive, it would be impossible to imagine them living anywhere else but Wyoming. Where else would you find a character like Tee Dove (“The Mud Below”) who fixes his broken nose by taking two pencils and pushing one in each nostril, “maneuvering them until the smashed cartilage and nasal bones were forced back into position” (p. 76); or Rancher Croom who hides the bodies of his paramours in the attic, discovered by his suspicious wife after his suicidal leap off of a canyon cliff (“55 Miles to the Gas Pump”); or a mother who hurls her infant in a river for “howling intolerably” during the journey from St. Louis to Laramie (“People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water”); or Mrs. Freeze, (“Pair a Spurs”)“a crusty old whipcord” whose bosom is an irritation because it gets in the way of her roping?
Occasional touches of humor keep these stories from being completely bleak. There are also “elements of unreality, the fantastic and improbable,” Proulx explains in the collection's Acknowledgments, that color these stories “as they color real life.” (p. 9) But primarily these are stories of survival in which a cruel nature often emerges victorious.
About Annie Proulx
Annie Proulx is an award- winning novelist and short story writer. In addition to her short story collections, she is the author of five novels, including Postcards (1992), the Pulitzer Prize winning Shipping News (1993), and Accordion Crimes (1996). Proulx was born and raised in the northeast and went to college in Vermont and Canada. She has lived much of her adult life in the west, including Wyoming.
Selected Close Range Reviews
... a story collection set in a Southern California that won't be found in any travel guides.
I had never heard of Richard Lange when I picked up Sweet Nothing, his second collection. I immediately connected with his writing style, appreciated his insights, chuckled at his dark humor, and loved the quirky but very human down-and-out-in-LA characters that populate his stories.
His fascinating characters include a 450-pound man who has no chin or waist who is trying to lose weight on a diet of soup, salad, and Cheerios; his Craigslist apartment mate, a minimum wage Subway sandwich maker who forfeited a six-digit salary and his family for a cocaine habit; a perpetual gambler trying to break his self-defeating cycle; an elderly man who lives alone in a trailer and reads Shakespeare; and various between-luck people who have done time, been to too many AA meetings, clothed themselves out of dumpsters, witnessed homicides, and lived in thin-walled apartments where gunshots are heard nightly and graffiti grows even on trees.
Since you may not have ever met people in your life who remotely resemble Lange’s characters, it’s easy to snicker at their self-destructive choices and self-righteously assume that (thank goodness) you have nothing in common with them. But Lange won’t let you get away quite that easily. These flawed characters, as reviewer Lisa Kirchner writes, "are making ordinary mistakes in everyday circumstances. You can’t help but root for these people, especially since they so rarely succeed here."
Perhaps his greatest strength as a writer is his ability to inject his characters with a common humanness that prevents us from dismissing them so easily. No matter how down on their luck his characters may be or how many mistakes have reversed the fortunes of their lives, we see ourselves reflected in their insights and hopes that maybe tomorrow will be better. And we rejoice with them in their rare moments of grace.
It’s not difficult to relate with the narrator of “Sweet Nothing” as he ponders the mystery of life:
"Smoke a cigarette, change the channel, stare into space. Then go to sleep, go to work, and come home, over and over and over again, until all your questions are answered or you forget you ever wondered." (p. 212)
And even if you’re not a gambler, you can empathize with the narrator’s explanation of his addition in the “The 100-to-1 Club”:
"Talk to a shrink or counselor or the folks at Gamblers Anonymous, and they’ll give you all kinds of explanations for why you do it. They’ll tell you that it’s chemical, that you have a death wish, that you secretly want to lose in order to be punished for the sins of your past, that you’re trying to return to a childlike state where miracles still happen.
It’s a lot simpler for me. I gamble because I like to win. I want to win. It makes me feel good. And you need something to make you feel good after ten hours of loading trucks for some prick who thinks you’re dirt, after sitting across the desk from a parole officer who’s waiting for you to violate, after listening to your mom put you down like she has your whole life. When I take a chump for twenty bucks on a pool table or pick up a few pots in a card game, something opens up inside me, and I’m as good as everyone else thinks they are—no, better. For an hour or a day, however long my streak lists, every move I make is the right one, and my smile can bring the world to its knees. The only problem is, it can’t last forever. You have to lose eventually so that someone else can win. Bitch and moan all you want, but that’s the first, and worst, rule of the universe." (p. 101)
I thought three stories in this collection—“ The 100-to-1 Club,” “Sweet Nothing,” and “To Ashes"—were outstanding, but “To Ashes” was my favorite. “To Ashes” is a multi-layered story of several characters and the unanticipated intersection of their lives, blended skillfully and seamlessly together.
It is Armando Morales’s story, who sets out in search of his missing nephew and wife, who are illegally crossing the border from Mexico into California at the same time there is a massive border fire. It is Miguel’s story, who reluctantly accompanies his father into the fire-ravaged wasteland in search of his cousins, only to be challenged physically and emotionally as he has never been before. “To Ashes” is also Brewer’s story—a lonely 70 year old who refuses to leave his trailer, even when it is threatened by the fire—who determines if he is forced to evacuate, the one possession he will take with him is his battered copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. And, even though we know learn little about them, the narrative is also Alberto and Maria’s story, for it is their fatal attempt to cross the border that brings together Armando, Miguel, and Brewer in search of the missing couple.
“To Ashes” is a beautiful and sensitive story of loneliness, family closeness, and human connections.
Richard Lange’s Writing Style
I have not read Lange’s two novels but he seems like a natural at crafting short stories. His narratives have all the ingredients I feel make compelling stories: tight construction with minimalist prose, strong character development, intense plots, “rabbit hole” beginnings that draw you immediately in, thoughtful endings, easy flow of lyrical prose, striking imagery, doses of humor, commentary on American society, and insight into human behavior.
The majority of Richard Lange’s stories included in Sweet Nothing as well as his earlier collection, Dead Boys, are narrated in the present tense by characters who invite us to share their struggles in trying to live the normal lives most of us take for granted. They want stable relationships, steady jobs, and kids whom they see more than once a year. But fate seems determined to steer them in other directions. Although Lange’s characters seldom succeed, his light touch, comic injections, and obvious empathy prevent his narratives from ever seem dark or depressing. Kirchner writes: Despite the tragedies and scarcity of kindness, what comes across is the human animal’s capacity for perseverance in the face of failure. The characters go on, and so we must flip the page.”
Most of Lange’s stories are set in the LA area, where he lives. The strong sense of place evidenced in his stories gives them authenticity and local flavor.
Lange’s writing is peppered with imagery that turns ordinary prose into something more akin to poetry. In “Must Come Down” the narrator describes his apartment as “kind of a dump. The plaster walls are cracked, the floor feels spongy beneath your feet, and when the guy in the next unit takes a leak, he sounds like he’s using our toilet” (p. 7). The narrator of “The 100-to-1 Club” describes his survival technique during his 48-hour stay in jail: “I spent all my time guarding my personal space, displaying enough aggression to ward off the jackals but not so much that I riled the tigers” (p. 76). He describes his horse racing date, Lupe’s, smile as one that “could stop a war,” but it can’t stop him from gambling away her money (p. 87). For Brewer, growing older and more lonely each day in “To Ashes,” “the past seems like a fuse that was lit the moment he was born, one that now burns faster than he can run.” (p. 237). Sprinklings of dark humor also provide comic relief and help prevent the stories from being too dark.
About Richard Lange
Richard Lange (http://richlange.com) is the author of two novels and two short story collections. He has also published short stories in various literary journals. A native of Oakland, CA, he earned a degree in film at USC and worked as a magazine editor before he began writing full time. He has won several awards for his fiction and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009.
Selected Sweet Nothing Reviews
“If she wasn't having a baby on Tuesday, my mother ironed."
Nothing To Do But Stay
by Carrie Young
Carrie Young is best known for her authorship of Nothing To Do But Stay (University of Iowa Press, 1991), an eight-essay “folk narrative” tribute to her pioneer mother who, at the age of 25, left Minneapolis in the early 1900s to homestead alone in the prairies of western North Dakota.
Young, one of six children raised by this remarkable woman remembers her mother, Carrine Gafkjen, as “at once the most liberated and unliberated of women. If she had considered the subject at all she would have thought it a waste of time. She firmly believed in destiny; what fate planned for her she dealt with head-on.”
Much lesser known is this slim, companion volume of seven short stories that Young published the year after Nothing To Do But Stay. The stories are set during the first half of the 20th Century in the same harsh landscape of the Dakota plains where Young grew up and offer an intimate glance into the Norwegian American culture that developed there.
Young’s characters are undoubtedly patterned after the stalwart homesteaders she remembered from her childhood who endure dust storms, grasshopper blights, repeated crop failures and near starvation of their cattle with never a thought of giving up or leaving their chosen homeland (pp. 44, 64). These are people who drive Model Ts 30 miles to make a telephone call, navigate blinding blizzards to treat scarlet fever victims and deliver babies, hand stitch elaborate baptismal gowns for babies that may never come, and celebrate (when day-to-day demands allows) with traditional foods (you can almost smell the gingersnaps baking in the oven and thick porridge simmering on the stove) and customs (folk dancing) from their beloved native land.
These are hardy people, both physically and emotionally. Even their names—Borghold, Gunnar, Ingval, Kjersten, Ragna—exude strength.
“The Skaters” is a powerful story of a love triangle involving two brothers and one of their wives who homestead together. Although Young never clarifies the extent of the relationship between Borghold and her brother-in-law, their unspoken longings are certainly felt and provide emotional depth for this story. A gift Ingval gave to his sister-in-law—a small globe featuring granules of snow whirling around a girl and two boy skaters—stands at the centerpiece of the story and becomes symbolic of the fragile uncertainty of the relationship among the three main characters.
“The Nights of Ragna Rundhaug” is a portrait of a woman “who wanted nothing more than to sit in her homestead cabin with her white dog and her chickens out back and her horse in the shed ready to be hitched up to the buggy anytime she took a notion to go to town,” but becomes a reluctant midwife simply because she is the only woman available to help a frantic homesteader whose wife goes into labor during a blizzard. The story focuses on Ragna’s coping with her “terror and guilt” after losing the first baby she delivers and the emotional strength she musters to deliver hundreds of babies after that “dreadful night.”
In “Twilight and June” a jilted finance reestablishes a relationship with the woman who betrayed him many years later after her husband has died. June believes that the man who visits her daily in the nursing is her late husband, Ralph, and Twilight maintains her happiness by never correcting her misconception. Twilight remains faithful to June, even when she confesses to “Ralph” that she was once engaged to another man but only “went along with, you might say, until my prince came along!” (p. 186).
In the title story a hauntingly beautiful and tragic pioneer woman sews an intricate, silk wedding gown that she loans to many young brides but ironically never has the opportunity to wear herself until the gown becomes her funeral shroud. A University of Iowa Press review of the collection describes Ildri’s gown as “an enduring symbol for the grace and compassion of homesteading women on the plains.”
The narrator of “Wedding Dress” describes her mother (a replica of her own homesteading mother) as a friend of Ildri’s who leaves Minneapolis to “carry out a long-held dream”:
“She boarded a train west and one cold spring day staked out a homestead for herself in northwestern North Dakota, where thousands of acres of virgin prairie rolled two thousand feet above sea level from horizon to horizon. As she lived out the required months of residence in her tiny makeshift cabin, living on potatoes and salt, carrying her water five miles from the nearest creek, barring her door against the coyotes, the big-city world with its Astrid Fjelds and watered-silk wedding dresses seemed as distant as another planet.” (pp. 21-22)
There are lighter stories that balance out the collection, such as “Sins of Our Fathers” and “Bank Night,” but they lack the depth and richness of character development that characterize the best of this collection. You may soon forget the characters in these stories, but you will long remember Ragna Rundhaug.
Young is a gifted storyteller whose carefully crafted fiction and non-fiction writings are a testament to the resilient spirit of the homesteaders who settled the North Dakota plains.
About the Author
Carrie Young grew up as one of six children on the North Dakota plains and graduated from the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Nothing to Do But Stay (Iowa, 1991), Prairie Cooks (Iowa, 1993), and Green Broke (1981). She lives on a farm in Ohio.
Selected Wedding Dress: Stories from the Dakota Plains Reviews
The Wedding Dress: Stories from the Dakota Plains by Carrie Young
The Wedding Dress: Stories from the Dakota Plains by Carrie Young
"Freddy had already watched so many movies that any religion he would hear about would nest in his brain on top of Tanga the Cave Woman and Bikini Death Squad."
"Welding with Children"
Welding with Children is Tim Gautreaux’s second collection of short stories. It was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1999. The 11 stories reflect a familiar theme in this native Louisianan’s fiction: “working-class characters facing moral or ethical challenges against the backdrop of Louisiana’s changing physical and cultural landscape.”
In Gautreaux’s short stories you’ll find greasy car engines hanging from trees and derelict cars rusting in overgrown yards; two-lane roads with “abandoned filling stations and rickety vegetable stands” (p. 193); an 85-year-old woman speaking Acadian French to her chickens “because nearly everyone else who could speak it was dead” (p. 62); a Presbyterian minister who considers himself talented since “scores of cheating husbands and alimony dodgers in St. Tammany Parish had at least considered reform” (p. 113); a dredge-boat cook whose “stomach reached out farther than her breasts” and whose “angry red hair shrouded a face tainted by tattooed luminescent green eye shadow” (p. 150); an old man who’s forgotten his name wandering around a Wal-Mart parking lot clueless as to where he parked his car; an unemployed, one-armed, one-sixteenth African-American, lesbian women’s studies professor; a woman who tries to pull an upright piano out of her house using a John Deere tractor; four illegitimate children who drive to town with Paw Paw in a “bastardmobile”; and ladies who dote on the brandy-sipping local Catholic Father, filling his plate again and again with pork roast, potato salad, and sweet peas, “making over him as if he were an old spayed tomcat who kept the cellar free of rats” (p. 39).
If these characters sound like they waltzed straight out of a Flannery O’Connor collection, it’s because her writing influenced Gautreaux, as did Louisianan Walker Percy’s.
If O’Connor captured the backwoods people of Georgia, Gautreaux has accomplished the same for the rural people who populate Louisiana’s bayou country whose voices have seldom been heard. But Gautreaux treats his characters a little more kindly than O’Connor did; he shows more warmth and compassion for them as they struggle with life, even if their problems are self-inflicted.
Reviewer L. Lamar Nisly writes that although some of Gautreaux’s characters are “less than remarkable, sometimes downright unlikable,” the author “is able with memorable dialogue, pithy descriptions, and—often—a touch of the divine to help us see the humanity, growth, and grace in these characters.”
Gautreaux’s stories offer more humor and hope than O’Connor’s as well, although some of the tangled situations in which the characters find themselves are bleak. When a thief slaps 85-year-old Doris Landreneaux in an attempt to get her to shut up so that his robbery can proceed, her upper dentures go flying across the room, landing on the Formica dinette table. Gautreaux writes: “With no hesitation, she picked up her teeth and walked to the sink to rinse them off. Grabbing the incisors, she slid her dentures back in place.” (p. 63) Later Doris offers the burglar some chicken stew that’s been bubbling on the stove. “You burglars take time to eat or what?” she asks. (p.68)
When the grandfather in “Welding with Children” tries to educate his four grandchildren about the Bible by telling them the story of Adam and Eve, they become intrigued by the story’s talking snake who, he tells them, is “the devil in disguise.”
“Tammynette flipped her hair. ‘Aw, that’s just a old song. I heard it on the reddio. That Elvis Presley tune’s got nothing to do with the devil making himself into a snake in the Garden of Eden.'
‘Who’s Elvis Presley?’ Moonbean sat back in the dust by the weatherboard wall and stared out at my overgrown lawn.
‘He’s some old singer died a million years ago,” Tammynette told her.
‘Was he in the Bible too?’ (p.9)
Japanese-lantern Compacts and MTV
Generational and societal changes often cause dissonance for the characters in Gautreaux’s stories. When the aging widower in “Resistance” first moved into his subdivision in the 1950s, “he could hear the tinny cheer of radios, the yelps of children chasing through the houses, a rare yelling match about money or relatives. But now he heard only the breathy hum of the heat pumps and the intermittent ahhh of an automobile’s tires on the subdivision’s ebony treats. He looked at his fifteen-year-old Buick parked in the single drive. It embarrassed him to drive such a large old car through the neighborhood, where everyone stood out and washed the dust from their Japanese-lantern compacts.” (p. 124) He cannot bear to look at his next door neighbors who “let the rosebushes die of thirst and left the empty garbage cans sitting at the edge of the street until the grass under them forgot what the sun looked like, and died.” (p. 122)
The grandfather in “Welding with Children” bemoans the fact that his four illegitimate grandchildren are growing up ignorant of religion and morality. Feeling partially responsible for the way he and his wife carelessly reared their unmarried mothers, Bruton turns off the TV while his grandchildren visit and tries to interest them in Bible stories. But he soon realizes he’s facing a nearly hopeless uphill battle:
“What’s the use? I’m just one old man with a little brown book of Bible stories and a doggy-hero book. How can that compete with daily MTV, kids’ programs that make big people look like fools, the Playboy Channel, the shiny magazines their mammas and their boyfriends leave around the house, magazines like Me, and Self, and Love Guides, and rental movies where people kill one another with no more thought than it would take to swat a fly….” (p. 13)
In a 2007 interview Tim Gautreaux indicated that he doesn’t have a favorite story but said that “Welding with Children” is one of his favorites. “ I became very attached to the character of the grandfather,” he said. “I connected with his story, with his guilt. He was a good man.”
His attachment to “Paw Paw” in part stems from the fact that Gautreaux grew up without grandfathers.
“One thing a fiction writer does,” Gautreaux explained, “is he makes things that he doesn't have, so I make grandfathers for myself while I write.”
“Welding with Children” is one of my favorites too. You can’t help but feel empathy and hopefulness for the grandfather trying to instill some morality into his four grandchildren. When he overhears some old geezers refer to his Chevrolet Caprice as a “bastardmobile” when he is driving his grandkids into town for Icees, he knows it’s too late to change his four daughters, each unmarried with an illegitimate child and fond of dropping off their kids at his house for free child care, but maybe there’s hope for their children.
A village elder advises Bruton to take the grandchildren to church, clean up his cluttered yard, keep his grandkids with him as much as he can “or else they’ll wind up in Angola or on their backs in New Orleans.” (p. 15) The church and yard cleanup are relatively easy tasks (Famous Amos Salvage helps cart away cars, engines, lawn mowers, washing machines, and scrap iron), but teaching the grandkids about the Bible proves to be quite a challenge when Tammynette thinks The Bible is a movie because “I think I seen it down at Blockbuster,” Freddie thinks Conan the Barbarian might be a Bible movie because it “kicked ass” and “has swords and snakes in it,” and all of the kids say things like “shit dog” because their mothers’ boyfriends do or they heard them on late-night comedy shows. (p. 8)
“Sorry Blood” is an entirely different kind of story but is also one of my favorites in this collection. Gautreaux’s masterful depiction of an old man’s anxiety as he realizes he is losing his memory is heartwrenching, especially when we realize this character could be any of us:
“The old man walked out of Wal-Mart and stopped dead, recognizing nothing he saw in the steaming Louisiana morning. He tried to step off the curb, but his feet locked up and his chest flashed with a burst of panic. The blacktop parking lot spread away from him, glittering with the enameled tops of a thousand automobiles. One of them was his, and he struggled to form a picture but could not remember which of the family’s cars he had taken out that morning. He backstepped into the shade of the store’s overhang and sat on a displayed riding lawn mower. Putting his hands down on his khaki pants, he closed his eyes and fought to remember, but one by one, things began to fall away from the morning, and then the day before, and the life before.” (p. 141)
In terrifying detail, Gautreaux shows how victims of memory loss can be abused, in this case by a cunning but shiftless ne'er-do-well who discovers Etienne LeBlanc wandering around the Wal-Mart parking lot, claims to be his son, takes him home, and enslaves him to dig a drainage ditch while he drinks margaritas and looks at porno magazines. Etienne grieves not only for his past life that he can no longer remember but for the worthless “white trash” son he is led to believe he has raised.
Contrasting the horror of Etienne’s ditch-digging experience is the beauty with which Gautreaux writes of the return of Etienne’s memory, if only temporarily, and reunion with his grandson awaiting him in the familiar Wal-Mart parking lot:
“As if memory could be a decision, he accepted it all, knowing how that the only thing worse than reliving nightmares until he day he died was enduring a life full of strangers. He closed his eyes and called on the old farm in his head to stay where it was, remembered its cypress house, its flat and misty lake of sugarcane keeping the impressions of a morning wind.” (p. 159)
Tim Gautreaux's Writing Style
Tim Gautreaux's writing style is characterized by "an attention to detail of character and environment, tightly controlled prose and plotting, and a sense that the characters have a life beyond the page, that they are beings with freedom, rather than victims of authorial whim," according to Amy Welborn.
Gautreaux’s vivid imagery (in “Welding with Children” Bruton’s wife’s dyed hair is described as “the color and texture of fiberglass insulation”) (p. 17) and often quirky details (in “Rodeo Parole” he describes one inmate as “a tall, bent rail of a man with scrambled-egg hair and a barbecued, narrow face”) (p. 179) illustrate a region of the country that is unlike any other in the U. S. With what New York Times Reviewer Liam Callanan calls “perfect pitch,” Gautreaux captures the authentic voices of the people who live there.
A Library Journal review of this collection praises Gautreaux for “master[ing] the illusion of letting a story flow in such a natural way that it seems to tell itself. His economy of language is truly impressive as he creates realistic, multifaceted characters and complex situations in the space of a few pages. While some authors might be tempted to denigrate the down-home denizens of rural Louisiana or render them as caricatures with exaggerated speech or behavior, Gautreaux would rather give the reader the opportunity to inhabit their lives.”
About Tim Gautreaux
Tim Gautreaux was born and raised in Louisiana, the son of a tugboat captain. He grew up around male relatives who worked in blue collar jobs on the railroad or on offshore oil rigs and who liked storytelling. He credits the storytelling traditions of these men for “inspiring him to become a writer and shaping his literary style.” His Catholic school education and culture were also influential forces in his work which “often centers on issues of guilt, redemption, and spirituality, both explicit and implicit.”
Gautreaux earned an English literature degree at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux and a PhD in literature from the University of South Carolina. He returned to Southeastern Louisiana University to teach and after years of writing poetry, began writing short stories when he enrolled in a writing seminar taught by Walker Percy.
Gautreaux has served as writer-in-residence at Southeastern Louisiana University for more than 30 years and won several awards for his novels and short stories.
Selected Welding with Children Reviews
I am an avid reader with a special interest in the short story genre.