Out of Pittsburgh: Garnett Kilberg Cohen Reviews Two New Story Collections

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Old Priest (University of Pittsburgh Press), by Anthony Wallace, and Little Raw Souls (Autumn House Press), by Steven Schwartz, celebrate the narrative and the art of storytelling, using traditional approaches to the form. The power of both books resides primarily in the authors’ attention to language, craft, and character development—what is at stake at a particular moment in a particular character’s life; in other words, what drives people. If, as Joan Didion says, “we tell ourselves stories to live,” we read stories like the ones in these two collections to understand and feel how others live. To say the stories are traditional is not to say that they don’t take risks or play subtly with what we’ve come to view as the arc of the conventional story—conflict, rising action, and then, epiphany and resolution. The title story in The Old Priest (winner of the Drue Heinz Prize), in particular, is experimental in the way it tests the boundaries.

“The Old Priest,” told in the second person, is over forty pages in length, novelistic in scope, and unpacks itself, over and over, the way many a Munro story does, yet in other ways, the story is as meta as a piece by Barth or Borges. The story is about a man’s relationship with his former high school French teacher, a priest, over the course of the main character’s adult life. Instead of the second person serving as a stand-in for first person or as a means of placing the reader in the story—as is often customary with the device—Wallace’s use of “you” feels like the narrator is confessing to himself, almost as if he is two different people. He seems to be telling himself what he did in the past, sometimes in an accusatory fashion, sometimes in an effort to explain or justify why he behaved a particular way. You did this. You did that. Despite this point-of-view twist, the story reads like a straightforward tale for the first twenty or so pages, albeit one that contains precise and delightful details about the priest: “a Jesuit, brainy and fey. He smokes Pall Malls fixed bayonet-style in an onyx and silver cigarette holder and crosses his legs at the knee. He tells stories as if he is being interviewed for a public television special on old priests.” The “you” in the story takes all his latest “girls” to martini lunches or dinners with the priest, letting the clergyman, with his stories of the Kennedy years, of bullfights and other European adventures, begin the seduction process that the “you,” a failed writer (there are several failed artists in Wallace’s stories), can capitalize on later.

There are some incidents early in “The Old Priest”—such as when the narrator and the priest get high on mushrooms and hallucinate, and the priest begins to resemble a goat-man with “cloven hooves and wispy white fur on his hands and cheeks” —where you (meaning me, the reader, this time) think you know where the tale is headed: that it is a series of anecdotes about the priest and the “you” until the failed writer falls into a conventional life as an English teacher married to an English teacher. Then, as a former fiction professor of mine used to say, the writer throws scalding water on the snow, and everything changes. The story starts to go meta. The failed fictional writer who thinks he has no stories worth repeating realizes he has the priest’s stories and writes a novel called The Old Priest, in the second person, where it is revealed that the writer is “only truly comfortable writing in the second person.” A confession within a confession. Simultaneously, Wallace (or his “you”) explores the nature of storytelling within the story. For example, right before the appearance of the goat-man, Wallace prepares the reader with this: “To penetrate time you must go outside of time. Outside of time is the world of myth, of eternal and meaningful recurrence. Even as the old priest tells his anecdotes again and again they acquire substance, a kind of permanence or narrative integrity that goes beyond their literal level.”

When it occurs to the fictional “you” that he should tell the priest that he has written a book about him, “something stops you whenever you think about it.” The story of the narrator’s life proceeds, integrated with other characters and reflections on time, storytelling, religion, and homosexuality, even a meditation (which feels essay-like) on movie priests—everyone from Bing Crosby in The Bells of St. Mary’s and Spencer Tracy in Boys Town to Karl Malden in On the Waterfront and William Burroughs in Drugstore Cowboy. The “you” continues to keep his book secret from the priest, loving the priest while also resenting him, until the resentment surpasses the love. Near the end of the story the narrator thinks the priest looks at him as if “you yourself were a story to be told” and doesn’t visit the priest again after he moves to assisted living, preferring to keep the priest “locked up, safe and sound” inside the pages of his book.

Many of the other stories in The Old Priest are also—at least in part—about the nature of storytelling, what it means, how we draw subsistence from stories, and how we allow stories to delude us.

In “Snow behind the Door,” the grandmother of the first-person narrator “tells stories when she gets in the mood, family stuff [he’s] listened to since childhood and that [he] could recite along with her.” In “Jack Frost,” Bobby, the narrator, a casino dealer (as are many of the characters in this collection), “go[es] along with it all, the cigar smoke and the stories and really acting like [he] gave a shit” because that is, apparently, what dealers (like bartenders) often do, listen to stories. A central component of this story is an explanation of the way Jack Frost, an immigrant cardplayer, created his name—the first name came from Jack Kennedy and the last from Robert Frost because he liked the way Frost defined a poem, “a momentary stay against confusion.” The “Burnie-Can,” which begins with a grandmother and mother trapping a dinosaur (either a baby or a miniature one) under the clothesbasket, is probably the weirdest story in the book (and one of my favorites). From the women’s descriptions, the rest of the family gathers it’s a tiny T-Rex. The characters in the story are down and out, as are many of those in the other stories, while the story itself is a hodge-podge of stories; “the collection of stories,” the narrator tells us, “that makes up the history of my family.” There is the sister who sees a parade of rabbit ghosts in the basement near the sink where their grandfather had skinned the rabbits he hunted. The father who sits in the backyard shooting rats as they emerge from the woodpile, hoping the dead meat might attract the dinosaur so he can capture it and use it to make his fortune. The story of his family and of the dinosaur, we’re told, “has an end, if not exactly a plot.” In that end it’s “a king-sized mess, as the story of any family would be,” but a slightly redeemed mess when everyone in the family witnesses the return of the dinosaur “a million-year-old creature emerging from a jagged tear at the bottom of the burnie-can [which is, I think, though it’s never explained, a can in which to burn waste], stopping just long enough for us to see that he is, in fact, a dinosaur, then moving off with great dignity across the open field.”

Though the book as a whole is more than worth the read (the title story, alone, merits it), in the end, the collection suffers a bit from the same problem that Justin, a character in “Have You Seen This Girl?” has: we’re told that as a blackjack dealer at the Mirage for five years, he “can tell you stories, although after a while they all blend together.” The narrator in this story is a failed filmmaker living in Vegas who “no longer cared about film as story, the image as a fundamentally accurate representation of reality; [she had] lost faith in the very idea of narrative coherence.” That all said, a blending together of stories in a collection is often the collateral damage that results when a writer explores similar topics from various angles to arrive at deeper truths. This is not to say that writers reach greater truths as often as they would like; rather, that when it does happen, they often take a messy, overlapping route to get there.

I have twice had the pleasure of being a preliminary judge for the Drue Heinz Prize and know, from reading through the piles of manuscripts, how easy it is for manuscripts and stories within them to blur and how hard it is to achieve the simultaneous distinctiveness and overlap that Wallace manages. The first time I judged, I was shocked when the enormous boxes arrived at my house. I don’t know what I was expecting, but not cartons that looked as though they could almost contain a washer and a dryer. In each batch of manuscripts, most were competently written, yet only five or six collections stood out. Had I been reading this year, The Old Priest would definitely have been among the standouts. First, for the characters in the stories and their rich internal lives; second, for the craft; and finally, because several of the stories took me places I didn’t expect to travel and made me think about storytelling in new ways I might not have without reading the book. Little Raw Souls, also published in Pittsburgh, would have risen to the top of those heaps as well.

Little Raw Souls is a solid, well-constructed collection, also a more traditional one. Although the collection takes its name from Anne Carson’s lyrical and highly experimental piece, “The Glass Essay,” the stories in Schwartz’s collection are far from experimental. They took me on some wonderful rides—usually unfolding into well-earned, often beautiful, epiphanies—but no rides that completely surprised me. Often the highly crafted resolutions feel too expected. I wonder if a character, who is also a writer, in “Galisteo Street” is partly based on experiences in the author’s life, since this section from the book feels as though it could be applied to Schwartz’s work: “His agent tried to place [his work] with university presses and when that didn’t pan out [ . . . ] she turned to small independent publishers who declined them too. ‘Not experimental enough for us’ they wrote.”

I understand the character’s frustration with the reaction from independent publishers. Traditional narratives without immediately visible experimentation (such as the amount of white space or unusual ways words are configured on a page) do seem to get dismissed more readily these days. Sometimes the attention experimental stories receive is deserved, but almost as often it seems these pieces are simply louder and jump off the page. Gimmicks and squeaky wheels. Quiet stories need more work to be understood. The risks taken in Schwartz’s stories occur more with the characters’ behavior than in the writing itself. Many of his stories involve encounters between the main characters and strangers—or people who have become strange to them—the kinds of encounters that make us question who we are.

In “Stranger,” Elaine, a woman traveling alone, falls asleep at the airport, her head lolled back on her left shoulder, “that kind of sleep—deep and insular, from which you returned as if kidnapped.” When she wakes, a woman tells her that her husband will be back shortly, that he had to take her “wallet for a minute to buy some travel items.” The woman hadn’t even questioned him when he reached inside Elaine’s purse because he deftly combined the move with a kiss on Elaine’s cheek. A kissing-stranger-thief! The incident almost leads Elaine into cheating on her real husband (who is safe at home) with another stranger who buys her a drink at the airport bar.

In the story “Seeing Miles,” the main character, David, is meeting his cousin for lunch, a cousin he hasn’t seen in twenty-five years, a cousin whom he once had a crush on—that is, when the cousin was Mimi, a she; the cousin is now Miles, a he. At lunch, David shares that he and his wife, Rose, are trying to have a second child, something they “rarely told anyone.” David and Miles take a swim in the hotel pool while David contemplates his crush, along with the nature of sexuality and gender, and his own maleness. Later at home, he makes love to his wife, accidentally calls out Miles’s name, for which he receives a hard slap from his wife. Afterward, he lay beside his wife and “placed his hand on her belly [ . . . ] He felt warmth there, felt something stirring, felt, he was sure, a magnificent and mysterious transformation taking place. And he felt, too, Miles’s faint lips against his cheek, the cheek that Rose had slapped, as if to startle a new life into being, neither him nor her but faceless creation.”

“Indie,” perhaps the most experimentally structured of the stories, begins with Mr. Adams, a high school teacher, standing in front of his class with a gun, intent on shooting himself. “He had initially planned to carry out the task after school [ . . . ] but knew that would entail a search for a missing person, and although he had been missing from himself for some time, he didn’t wish to be officially designated as such and cause [his wife] the extra hardship of agonizing about his whereabouts [ . . . ] Best to get it over in a conspicuous place.” After the opening, told from the teacher’s point of view, the story slips into numbered sections, a backward countdown—nine, eight, seven, six . . .—each one attached to a different student in the classroom. This device allows Schwartz to play with the idea of identity, a prominent theme throughout the book, while showing his dexterity in developing multiple reactions to a single situation, and also allows us to consider what we—or one of our children—might do in such a situation. In the final segment, when a student approaches to take the gun away, we find ourselves both in the present moment and thrown into the future, where we learn what happens to each of the children in the classroom, just before a SWAT member fires through the window and kills Mr. Adams.

There are a few other nods to experimentation, as in “The Opposite Ends of the World,” when the main character receives a complaint letter about his noisy dog. The letter appears on his car’s windshield and contains eight computer-generated pages that simply read, over and over, BARK BARK BARK BARK. By letting us see an entire page of the repeated word, printed over and over, Schwartz allows us to experience the sense of menace that the character feels when he reads the letter.

All the stories in the book kept me reading, following the largely unbroken flow of words, compelled to discover the outcomes, how these people face their situations and what they learn. But my favorite story, probably the most complex, also the longest, is “The Last Communist.” Told in the first person, this story is about failures and thievery, but also about loyalty and generosity. The narrator, Manny (a teenager for most of the story), describes himself as “a selfish person, not quite a goniff, a thief, but close, and although my secular parents scorned religion, the opiate of the masses, after all, they didn’t hesitate to employ old world Yiddish for its unmatched tonal accuracy in evoking disappointment.” His parents, who take him along to protests until he refuses to continue going, are either communists or socialists. They say he is “too interested in money.” Yet his father, a small grocer, “prided himself on never being robbed and informed [Manny] the best protection a person can buy is generosity [even though] this didn’t keep his shelves from growing sparser, his creditors from leaning on him.” Every summer Manny and his mother go up to work in a hotel in the Catskills, mostly frequented by Jews of similar politics, while his father stays behind to run the grocery, arriving only for weekends. During the summer when much of the story takes place, in the Vietnam War era, Manny is grappling with his budding sexuality, his future, and his mother’s failing health. He doesn’t appear to be drawn into the politics swirling around him, and easily gives up an older friend, a waiter at the resort, who has bombed an ROTC building, to the FBI when they let him know they have his parents in their sights. But by the end of the story—and a leap into the future—we learn that not all was what it seemed that summer in the Catskills.

The Old Priest and Little Raw Souls are just two medium-length collections, both by men, both published in the medium-sized city of Pittsburgh. I can’t make any valid claims that they represent any trends in the world of short fiction or the world of small and university presses, any return to storytelling where characters take center stage. Still, it was wonderfully refreshing to see—despite the many exciting new forms exploding all around us—that well-crafted narratives continue to thrive and win awards, and continue to receive small press support, because I do believe, as the narrator in “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin comes to realize: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”