(Fredonia, NY: Leapfrog Press, 2014)
The characters in David Armstrong’s story collection “Going Anywhere” live in the darkness on the edge of town. Fractured by loss—aimless infidelities, deflated ambition, damaged or absent children—they limp through landscapes rural but not pastoral, urban but not sophisticated. They live on the raggedy edges of urban sprawl in shabby strip malls, through nights “still as a crime-scene photo.” Many live in Ohio (for which Armstrong serves as a kind of Cheever, minus the urgency to maintain a false social sheen), or in states east and south of there
where the crowds are still civil. Each car is packed with a million hopes—for cures and relief, mostly, but some for other things—and someday, I hate to say, you’ll realize what some people will do to get what they want. You’ll realize how much bigger the world is than what we have now.
That’s from “Bethesda,” a quietly heartbreaking story in which a run-of-the-mill community pool has somehow developed curative powers similar to that of the grotto at Lourdes. However, in these stories, faith and belief are not the factors which summon grace. In this case, it is dispensed in a kind of supermarket sweep, triggered by a mysterious flash of light.
In spare, sometimes wry prose, Armstrong evokes characters who always feel more than they can articulate, who find themselves in a place they don’t remember setting out for. “Was this the totality of life’s incomprehensible and varied hues?” wonders one restless wife who is planning not so much to leave as to drift away from a husband who wears his “frustration like a cologne.” Parents and children are choked by their inability to express their love and then, abruptly, are forever deprived of the opportunity. Sometimes the vague haunting which stalks these stories becomes outright fabulism. “Patience is a Fruit” begins in a small town where a street is cleared so that a posse of men can clear away a sudden menace of birds: “People say silent streets are like apocalypse movies, but to me the buildings got all brilliant,” the narrator tells us. “The world felt new without people in it, like I could breathe all the sudden.” The shoot leads to an accident, which causes the narrator to see an angel—not a heavenly creature of legend, but a “young woman in pale blue doctor’s scrubs.” This is merely the first of many everyman-angels which will guide his life into chaos.
In “Butterscotch,” a young couple discussing their impending parenthood in the breakfast room is interrupted when a strange, mummy-like figure shuffles out of the woods and across their lawn. (This phenomenon is presented by the narrator and accepted by the characters with a macabre indifference which encapsulates how accepting we’ve become of everyday horrors. Oh, those things? they might say, Yeah, they’re called “travelers.” They’re all over the place. They never speak. They just “appeared” one day, and disappear when touched. They’re part of life now.) Are the visits from the traveler affecting the couple’s pregnancy? The young mother is terribly sick. Is the young father, through his doubt, summoning the spectre? The conclusion, while chilling, is also slightly hopeful: a demonstration of the courage, or at least the endurance, that all of Armstrong’s characters must find in themselves in order to navigate their landscape.
It is Armstrong’s gift to weave the fantastic into the mundane in order to show us how ordinary lives are streaked with both terror and tenderness. Even the stories that don’t explicitly wander into Twilight Zone territory are fundamentally about mystery: how we love, why we can’t, how we continue on regardless. The tour de force of this collection is “Straw Man,” a cannily structured story which weaves together two narratives of men who have maneuvered their lives into disasters and have reached the point at which the straw breaks the camel’s back (literally, in one case) and then traces their slow, stumbling way back. “Life proceeds,” observes the laconic narrator, later adding that “there’s something in the darkness he’s been missing and it has something to do with love.”
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Elizabeth Bales Frank is a novelist and freelance writer whose work has appeared in commercial and literary magazines. Her website, which reviews the literature of World War II, can be found at www.somuchsomanysofew.wordpress.com. Her other website is elizafrank.com. She lives in Astoria, New York.