What I Read in February

March 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Fast Machine, Elizabeth Ellen. A little brick of a book picked up at the Hobart table at last year’s AWP. This collection arranges half-page microfictions alongside 30-page layered narratives, which creates a book not pinned to any decisive themes but intended more as a complete picture of this chapter of the author’s career. There are ninety-three stories in Fast Machine, many of them about young characters feeling their way through tricky relationships, adolescents pitted against untrustworthy adults, single mothers seeking to rebound from disappointment, and more than a few about older people similar to the author looking back on the decisions of their youth. It is obvious, from the disclosure of certain narrative particulars, that some of the stories are nonfiction.

Much like Bukowski, the narrative tension of Ellen’s writing resides in the immediate and shallow nature of decisions presented to protagonists more interested in surviving the moment than projecting their futures. In addition, there is a lot of name-dropping of pop culture references and attention to linear detail, both of which give the stories a legitimate down-to-earthiness and relatability:

We open a ten dollar bag of cookies from the mini bar and sit on towels in front of the TV and wash the cookies down with the rum punches we brought back from the pool. We watch half a biography of Ray Liotta and when that gets too sad we watch a game show on MTV and then we decide to watch porn. There are twenty different movies to choose from and we watch all the teasers once, trying to decide, and then it doesn’t matter anymore because your fingers are in my mouth and then they are in both our mouths and I can taste bits of rum and suntan lotion and chlorine on us and I like tasting us, our recent history and all that. (“Awesome Like Us”)

The day before we leave for Florida, I find a vial of coke in my mother’s purse. I am sitting on our porch with a bowl of shredded wheat. She’s gone in to make coffee. It’s morning and the sun is so bright I can’t look straight ahead without shutting my eyes. I take the vial across the driveway to the cornfield and watch the contents dust the soil. I return the vial to her purse and eat the rest of my cereal as though nothing has happened. (“Winter Haven, Florida, 1984”)

The flash-fictions, when placed alongside the more intense longer fictions, feel like place holders, and the more essayistic narratives can’t segregate what is important from what is not. Personally I felt the longer stories were more enjoyable reads, and I think they would have made for a more interesting and cohesive collection if left on their own.

Selected Stories; We Don’t Live Here Anymore; The Times Are Never So Bad, Andre Dubus. Nick Ripatrazone’s illuminating Millions essay on Dubus père made me hungry to go back and read my collection of the author’s works with a fresher perspective. (I haven’t finished Meditations From a Movable Chair.) Of these, I had already read We Don’t Live Here Anymore and The Times Are Never So Bad.

We Don’t Live Here Anymore  is a collection of three novellas: “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “Adultery,” and “Finding a Girl in America.” The first two stories were the basis for the 2004 film directed by John Curran.

The title story opens with a conversation about ale, and there is much casual opening of bottles in this series about two couples—writer Hank and his wife Edith, and professor Jack and his wife Terry—and their interlaced affairs. Hank and Jack are old friends from their days as students at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Hank is successful, but his writing receives the regularly scheduled attention that Edith does not, and at various stages, dominoes fall: Edith cheats on Hank with Jack; Edith later becomes lover and caretaker to a dying Catholic priest; Hank and Edith divorce and Hank takes up with ex-student Lori, barely older than Hank and Edith’s children.

The stories are unique in how much slack each character is given to grind apart his or her life. There is a lot of confession, or thoughts about confession, not so much out of concern for one’s reputation or purity in the eyes of God but as a double-checking of the earnestness of the soul. Dubus’s characters are seeking, in their marriages, a perpetual intensity that marriage cannot provide, but cliff-dangling risk can, or seem to.

I went  upstairs. Going up, I could hear the rifles cracking. That night I went to see Edith and Hank. They were drinking coffee at the kitchen table; the dishes were still there from dinner, and the kitchen smelled of broiled fish. From outside the screen door I said hello and walked in.

“Have some coffee,” Hank said.

I shook my head and sat at the table.

“A drink?” he said.

“Aye. Bourbon.”

Edith got up to pour it.

“I think I’ll take in a movie,” Hank said.

Edith was holding the bottle and watching me, and it was her face that told me how close I was to crying. I shook my head: “There’s no need—“

But he was up and starting for the back door, squeezing my shoulder as he passed. I followed him out.

“Hank—“

He turned at his car.

“Listen, I ought to dedicate my novel to you.” He smiled and took my hand. “You helped get it done. It’s so much easier to live with a woman who feels loved.”

One of my favorite stories in Selected Stories, “Voices From the Moon,” surrounds another wholly inappropriate love affair, this one told from multiple perspectives, as a divorced father carries on a relationship with his older son’s ex-wife. It also shares a quality with “Bless Me, Father” and “The New Boy,” two of my favorite stories from The Times Are Never So Bad: the willing corruption of young innocents by their adult caretakers. Richie is willing to be corrupted because he wants his father to have both happiness and purity of soul.

“You don’t mind her moving in with us? After we’re married?”

“No. I like her.”

“There must be something.”

“Larry.”

“Yes.”

“Am I going to visit him, like I do Mom?”

His father had not thought about that, Richie saw it in his face, the way it changed as abruptly as when he had stood so still with the spatula and half-raised cigarette, but more completely, deeply: the color rushed out of it, and the lips opened, and his stood staring at Richie’s eyes, his mouth, his eyes. Then in two strides his father came to him, was hugging him, so his right cheek and eye were pressed against his father’s hard round stomach, his arms held against his ribs by the biceps squeezing his own, the forearms pulling his back toward his father.

“You poor kid,” his father said. “Jesus Christ, you poor, poor kid.”

In Selected Stories there are also parents taking extreme actions, standing up their children both in place of and in defiance of God: “Killings” (the inspiration for Todd Field’s 2001 film In the Bedroom) features a father seeking revenge and redemption for the murder of his son by his lover’s ex; “A Father’s Story” is about a man who hides the evidence when his adult daughter is involved in a DUI hit-and-run. Dubus’s stories are heavy with adjectives and inner monologue and exploration; for that reason, they feel like slow reads, but accomplishments when they are finished. I get the same feeling of fulfillment I do when I read the stories of Frederick Busch, whose style I enjoy more. A comparative Frederick Busch-vs.-Andre Dubus essay probably needs to be written at some point.

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