Readers!

Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Find newer posts soon at my forthcoming blog, Revolutionary Time.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Judgment Days


“Come judgment day I’d testify before God that he was not a cruel or heartless man,” Henry says of his father in “This Season of Mercy,” one of ten stories in Jack Driscoll’s The World of a Few Minutes Ago (Wayne State University Press, 2011.)On other, lesser counts,” Henry adds, “[my father is] guilty as charged.” What 13-year-old Henry doesn’t realize is that more than one judgment day is in store for him. For just as losses—small deaths—prepare us for final darkness, accumulating evidence weighs us down until we have no choice but to stop and ask ourselves what kind of people we or our loved ones have become--not ultimately maybe, but so far. These smaller judgment days are the occasions for the stories in Jack’s book.

Jack was one of my faculty advisors in the MFA program at Pacific University, so I can’t bring myself to refer to him conventionally as Driscoll. He’s a lovely, generous man and was an intuitive, open-minded, and saving advisor, but I’m far enough from my degree now (Fiction 2009) that I could read the stories in this volume with some objectivity (or so I think), as if they were written by one of the short-story masters on my MFA reading list—William Maxwell, say, or Carol Bly. 

Here’s what I want to say about them: they require courage. I’ve lived with them for a year before writing about them because first I had to recover from a broken heart. 

In the Pushcart Prize-winning "Prowlers," a man in love with a woman addicted to breaking and entering must decide how to deal with her latest, most dangerous exploit, stealing a horse.  
                    
In "After Everyone Has Left," a father who dozed off for a minute at the beach and woke to find that his daughter, Ellie, had been abducted, shows up for the execution of the man who, some twenty years later, has confessed to Ellie's murder. While awaiting this other man's death, he sees his own life flash before his eyes. Jack manages not to confuse while telling both front and back stories in the present tense.

In "The Dangerous Lay of the Land," a 17-year-old girl who has been neglected and horrifically abused must decide whether to trust the teacher who offers to take her home in a snowstorm, then suggests a detour.  

In the title story, a photographer in his seventies, having spent most of his life in war zones, stands under the stars at home recalling his relationships--the easier ones first, with three women not his wife, then the harder, with his son, now dead, and his wife, who no longer recognizes him.

In “This Season of Mercy,” my favorite story, we follow Henry as he tries to decode his father’s behavior and his mother’s response to it. Why does his dad come home dressed as a woman? What precipitated the bloody fighting that landed his father in jail? Henry is not without clues. The slaughterhouse where his father works may have laid him off again. It isn't unusual for his father to fight when he drinks. But why the cross-dressing? Gradually Henry discovers, and I didn't catch on any faster than he did, that his father is a whistleblower, taking exception to shortcuts and sadism at the slaughterhouse, stealing records, shutting the place down, and putting the whole town's livelihood in jeopardy. Henry's dad was "just some local nobody who'd refused to serve what he did not believe in and could not cure." But Henry sees him afresh, even as his family must leave town. 

Most of these stories revolve around men, fathers, who are either violent or, because they are the breadwinners in a violent culture, have to make compromises with violence too major to leave their personalities intact. The men will make you sick at the same time as you learn, in a storm of telling detail and idiosyncratic language, how they got that way. Told either in first person or by very close third-person narrators, these stories are voice-driven, but not in the way you might expect. Maybe because Jack was a poet before he began writing fiction, the diction and syntax of his voices are half neighborhood and half melody. In "Sky Riders," for example, boy narrator Buzz describes a motorbike route he and his friend Iwo favor:

". . . we tore-ass across the Malicks' back eighty, right between the waist-high cornrows and up past the crib barn to the access road that intersected the towering high-tension lines. From there we had just a quick-hitch sprint to our promontory outpost hat overlooked Route 664, where we'd hit our kill switches and wait for my mom, rain or shine."

I wish the women in these stories were stronger. Most are ill or damaged or absent. Charlene in "Saint Ours" is the exception. She decides not to settle for a man so shut down he doesn't want to know anything about her--a side effect, maybe, of his life as a hunting guide--and when we leave her she's lighting out for something better, though this book, taken as a whole, suggests that she won't find it.

The father-to-son transmission of anger and violence is the unifying theme of these stories. As a teacher, however, one of Jack's favorite terms is redemption. Just when you think he couldn't possibly identify any promise of happiness or peace in the small frozen towns of Michigan, he does--usually in the last lines of his stories. Charlene, accelerating, sees "the power lines gleam in the rearview like harp strings." The photographer in the title story imagines the bulbs his dementia-ridden wife plants each fall as "things long lost bursting back alive again and again into this earthly world." Henry in "This Season of Mercy," seeing his parents kiss, wonders if everything that has happened to his family is, "if not a blessing, then something approximate to that."

Harper Lee's Atticus Finch said that "you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around." Jack offers an experience equal to that. You can learn the hard truths of the lives captured in these ten stories if you are brave enough.