What I Read in October

November 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Iron Horse Literary Review 12.6/13.1, 2011. An all-fiction double-issue that boasts some rather big names: Alice Hoffman, Claire Vaye Watkins, Aaron Gwyn, Pam Houston, and Padgett Powell, among others. Steve Yarbrough’s “The Basement” is set on my native North Shore, with landmarks familiar to me. Yarbrough grew up in Mississippi and now teaches at Emerson College. The narrator is a wisecracking dishonest plumber. It’s a good, enjoyable story, but I find it hard to forgive the author for an offense such as this:

Food was one source of trouble between my wife and me. Everybody thinks Catholic’s Catholic, like gin’s gin, but I’m Italian whereas she comes from one of those Irish families where everybody’s been a fire-fighter going back to about 1910, and the stuff people eat would be rejected by a discriminating garbage disposal. You drive around any one of these little towns up here north of the city and, every block or two, you’ll see some hole-in-the-wall place with a sign that says, Roast Beef. That’s all they eat: roast beef with mashed potatoes smothered in gooey, glue-based gravy and, on the side, a few soggy green things that began life as Brussels sprouts. These people are not just uninterested in good food. They’re aggressively opposed to it.

When I moved away from the North Shore the first thing I noticed was a conspicuous absence of roast-beef establishments. I hadn’t realized they were a North Shore thing and immediately missed them. The establishments vary in quality: essentially, there is Kelly’s and all of the immigrant-owned corner shops that aren’t Kelly’s—but I’ve never had my beef with potatoes and gravy, more like on a bun with cheese and sauce and a cup of clam chowder. Order yourself a junior with cheese and sauce and get back to me, Mr. Yarbrough.

Puerto del Sol #49.2, Spring 2014. This journal is produced by the English Department of New Mexico State University. The name and origin would seem to encourage work evoking the American Southwest, but this issue goes for a more universal sensibility, and every so often comes back to the unserious. The story “First Blood” by Kate Folk, told in the first person, is about a childish man who sets up a duel of sorts in the woods with his pregnant wife’s lover. Later, Shane Allison has a poem comprised entirely of the names of mall stores. (“Casual Corner, Structure, American Eagle Outfitters, Styles, Gadzooks…”).

It’s not always easy to tell which prose pieces are fiction and which are not, since “prose” is the label used in the Table of Contents. Brad Efford’s “Believe” strives for the kind of lesson that a good personal essay attains. It is about a dad who accompanies his daughter and her friends to a Justin Bieber concert, juxtaposing with his own experience amongst an older crowd at a Jeff Magnum show:

A minute before showtime, the lights dim and the digital numbers on the screens begin to throb in and out like a 3-D movie or a heartbeat. Fifty-three. Fifty-two. Everyone is on their feet, legs spasming, lungs emptied of air that’s constantly streaming through the esophagus and out into the general ozone of the stadium. The noise level’s crazy, almost alarming.

Alarming, except that I’m screaming , too. Caught up, and giddy. Even the dad’s on board—he’s slipped the rest of his dinner beneath his seat and folded his hands across his enormous lap, looking almost content for the first time.

Twenty-eight, twenty-seven, twenty-six. It dawns on me—the absurdity of it, I mean. I do realize this is bit much. Can’t he just come out and start singing? Would that be so bad?

Yemassee, Vol. 21 Issue 2. I received two copies of this issue in the mail. It includes two stories that were runners-up in the magazine’s Short Fiction contest, but not the winner, which I assume was printed in the previous issue.

Michael Czyzniejewski’s “Memorare for the Ding Dong” manages to inject a streak of poignancy into a playful topic, the beloved snack cake in the title, which his college girlfriend knew by a different name in the part of the country where she grew up. More to the point, the essay is about the odd fondnesses that we take away from our relationships, even those that stray from us.

Middle Men, Jim Gavin. I was introduced to Gavin’s work when I read his story “Costello” in The New Yorker. It is the last story in this collection, paired with another story about the title character’s son, and it is the best story in the book. I felt renewed joy coming back to it, even though nothing much happens in it: Marty Costello, a plumbing supply sales representative in southern California, is nominated for a local award in the industry. As the middle man between wholesalers and plumbers, his job is to move things around and stay engaged in conversation, running interference when defective shipments are allowed into the marketplace. A widower with two adult daughters, his loneliness is tamped down by the wit and patience that Gavin installs in him:

“We’re turning on the barbecue tonight,” Rocha says. “Feel free to come by.”

A year of warm regards and kind invitations. A year of telling lies to avoid them.

“I’m meeting the girls for dinner,” Costello says. “Thanks, though.”

Rocha salutes and leaves the wall. A moment later, the sound of his diving board, then a splash of impressive magnitude. Jesse Rocha, a virtuoso of the cannonball.

Costello lights up. Tareyton, the taste we’re fighting for. No more sneaking them behind her back. Now he can kill himself out in the open, under a blue sky.

Costello floats for a few minutes, blowing smoke rings, idly snapping the Zippo. Nice and quiet. A dragonfly hovers over the water, touching down smooth and fast, then gone, zigzagging up and over the wall, a dustoff.

The telephone pole in the corner of the yard, like the mainmast of a ship. Galleons and caravels. Sailors in the crosstrees on lookout. Magellan and his crew, drifting on the equator, praying for wind.

He starts the crossword, but can’t concentrate. An uneasy feeling clutches his stomach. The lizard directly below, full fathom five. He pushes off toward the shallow end and disembarks, his feet slipping into the slimy water.

Gavin hews close to his comfort zones—the Dodgers and the Del Taco restaurant chain get frequent mentions—but in doing so enhances a consistency of place, which I suppose is apt for a book about characters not moving forward as quickly as they would like. His characters work in careers, like plumbing sales and TV production, that the author has worked in himself. As the title suggests, they are caught drifting around in the too-vast spaces between failure and significance, perpetually at risk of being skipped over; Catholicism and martyrdom pop up as themes. The stories are longer than your average short stories, shaped by delay and character ambivalence and a lack of urgency.


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