Review of Fondly by Colin Winnette

Thursday, August 8, 2013


by Colin Winnette
Atticus Books

Fondly is a book composed of two novellas. The first is called In One Story, The Two Sisters, though it isn’t actually one story at all but rather unfolds through a series of vignettes. The second act, Gainesville, is also a novella-in-stories. Though similar in form, the two are stylistically distinguished from each other, offering the reader two stories within the same book—and perhaps leaving you asking to what end such a structure has been deployed. After reading, it becomes clear that housing these particular novellas under a single umbrella is a glorious example of the reverberations stories have over time when told again and again.

That’s the story they tell, and with no better explanation at hand, we sit back and try to make ourselves comfortable. We listen for the parts that sound true.

The above quote concludes In One Story, The Two Sisters. The titular sisters appear as characters in each pseudo-chapter, in scenarios ranging from the mundane to the absurd. They are cast as secluded nuns, cocktail olives, mothers to a brood of children, and, in one instance, possessing vestigial wings. These episodes can be read as allegorical, metaphorical, or any sort of -ical one feels inspired to apply. The women are placed in circumstances where the story being told is more important than the exact details.

Though each vignette is uncoupled from those that come before or after, thematically each part treads familiar ground. As the narrator puts it: “The two sisters did not have much money and lived a very simple life. Their comforts were few, and their isolation was nearly complete.” The repetition of these experiences, of being isolated, marginal, teetering on the brink, unites stories as diverse as the one in which the sisters find a duffel bag full of cash and the one where they are training to swim in the Olympics.

Gainesville, although also a novella-in-stories, follows a more linear narrative: a bloodline traced throughout generations. However, this is not to say that meaning is made more explicit. The reader must make do with a narrative that smolders rather than explodes. Crimes are committed, pregnancies come unexpectedly. The reader is treated to the births and deaths of characters. As the author paints a picture of life’s uncertainties, patterns develop that hark back to In One Story, The Two Sisters. Here one character, Mary Louise, considers her origins: “Her daddy had been a good man, though. But good men didn’t always stay good, that was one of the most important things she could ever learn. There were no guarantees. Everything changed in unpredictable ways, even the best things. Mary Louise needed to love what she had and be ready to let it go.”

One compelling part of Gainesville’s narrative is when the teenage girl hitchhikes her way into a fate that is never revealed directly. Suddenly removing a central character with so little resolution should be jarring. Winnette, however, has trained the reader to expect this throughout this series of stories that end as unexpectedly as they start. An example of this training comes several pages prior. Here the reader can trace the narrative back to the girl’s father, William, and his visit with a dying stranger: “‘You must learn to appreciate what you have,’ said the old man. He took the other man’s hand in his. ‘This moment. The unpredictable next. These are worth more than any dream you might have, any fantasy about what you could be doing or should be doing. A life-force moves through you, pulls you along, and you are me before you know it. And you will die.’”

The reader is a witness to stories that, while diverse on the surface, have at their core lessons of acceptance, sudden lost, and time slipping away. The whisking away of Mary Louise is accepted as another consequence of life’s many gambles. Her father experiences an equally quick ending at the end of a gun before she’s even born. The old stranger, though given some profound dialogue, is also never seen again. The author walks a fine line with these narratively risky tales, holding up a mirror that reflects how unpredictable and ineffable living can be. In this way, Fondly is not unlike the fourth section of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, where a dizzying litany of murders and rapes are presented to the reader. The repetition could derail the text, but it doesn’t because the material is so well presented and filled with so many mysteries that the reader cannot help but be drawn in and affected.

This is the strength of Winnette as a storyteller. He displays a confident hand and a cool control of his stylized prose. There’s a sensation of continuous tit-for-tat in his language, which echoes the karmic events in the narrative. Every step a character takes forward is a step closer to a cliff edge. As the old saying goes, “no good deed goes unpunished.”

The book winds down in a series of increasingly abstract passages, and for a moment it seems that Winnette has let his narrative get away from him. But the storyteller returns to wrap up his grand tale in a synopsis that filters into both novellas.

The grass grew. There was an armed robbery and the fireflies stirred. A fight broke out. A condom broke. A man raised his hand and a woman raised her hand. The wheels of the new projectors began to roll. Two strangers fell in love, made coffee. Children filled water guns with urine and someone made a move. Someone clutched her leg, her arm. A movie ended with a confession, with forgiveness, with love. Credits rolled. Filmed on location, they said, in Gainesville, Texas.

The starkness of the language exemplified above is another through line in Fondly, one that culminates in a annulated bang. Fondly is an exercise in the power of stories. But the power isn’t derived from the details. Power comes from the act of telling, in the ability to express the elements constituting the human condition. The unexpected burden, the longing for something not quite understood, the sudden reversal: these embody what it means to be us. Such stories are potent delivery vehicles for some of our profoundest truths.

We listen for what sounds true, just as Winnette’s narrator advises us. Even at its most unrealistic, Fondly draws the reader into that quest, with its vibrant storytelling and measured prose.