(Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2010)
I’ve always loved moments of crisis in literature—episodes that force characters to reevaluate and redefine themselves, and to recognize the false pretenses of their previous existences, or of any claim to personal consistency. (One of my favorite lines in Shakespeare is Iago’s “I am not what I am.”) Part of the allure might be the inherent falseness of such moments: one’s self is consistent, sometimes terribly so, and shocks that force a true reforging of character are scarce, if they exist at all. As for shocks that feel as if they do—those, too, are rare, but they surely exist.
These nearly paradoxical experiences (how can you feel “you’ll never be the same” unless you believe in a semi-constant “you”?) came to mind while I read The Man from Kinvara, Tess Gallagher’s latest short-story collection, an exquisite account of the confrontation of the ordinary and extraordinary.
That confluence brings out Gallagher’s fluency in several American languages. As the narrator of “The Lover of Horses,” she speaks in near-poetry: “I lay awake through the long night and spoke to my father as one might speak to an ocean or the wind.” The male bar-hand of “Recourse,” on the other hand, sounds like a plainspoken man deaf to his accidental lyricism. “I felt like picking up my life again,” he observes. “I mean having somebody to love and to be with. But I didn’t want to say anything right then.” The book displays an almost symphonic range of tones that emanate from a variety of distinct characters—characters, I noticed, who often seem to be struggling with their own distinctions, with what marks them off from each other, and makes them mysterious to themselves.
Throughout her depictions, Gallagher modulates among humor, wonder, and surprise:
For although I have heard the story of my great-grandfather’s defection time and again since childhood, the one image that prevails in all versions is of a dappled gray stallion that had been trained to dance a version of the mazurka.
The property had been fenced to leave a wide fire lane between our house and the house of a neighbor who called himself the Mad Hatter. He was a middle-aged disc jockey.
Ada was half-inclined to think Billie cared more about llamas than she did about people. But then Billie had never gotten much out of people, and she had made it on llamas.
In plot as well as tone, these stories traffic in the unexpected, and capture characters struggling to absorb shocks into their workaday lives. Gallagher often locates action in the home, permitting the space outside to represent the unknown, the threatening, even the magical. In “Turpentine,” the heroine—a woman who fixes up the houses she lives in to sell them at a profit—is enchanted by that most essential of suburban figures, the Avon Lady, who enters her home like an emissary from another world. “King Death” revolves around a couple’s efforts to drive away the drunk sleeping outside their house—a reminder of the husband’s former days as an alcoholic. The story concludes when their neighbor, the so-called “Mad Hatter,” brandishes a gun and fires at the sky, prompting the main character toward this devastating revelation: “I felt like I’d died and come to life in the front seat of a car in a strange city. I opened my eyes and looked up at my house. It seemed far away and nowhere I’d ever lived.”
Gallagher writes, too, about the co-mingling of men and women—or, just as often, the meetings of women without men. Friendships, I sometimes think, help constitute your identity, or at least your idea of your identity, as surely as experiences do.
In several stories, marriage seems a period in which friendships risk neglect, and widowhood seems an opportunity to reclaim them. In “Bad Company,” a widow visits her husband’s grave and finds a young woman visiting her father’s. Brought together by the absence of men, they strike up a conversation as remarkable for its silences as for its companionable patter. In what may be Gallagher’s most moving story, “Girls,” the heroine—another widow, by the name of Ada—seeks out a childhood friend to see if she’s still alive. She is, but after a stroke, can’t remember Ada at all. Ada had anticipated a return to the past, and instead finds herself “alone in their past,” the sole participant in her shared memories with Esther. Here, as in other stories, the unfamiliar intersects with the familiar, the inexplicable with the rational:
After Esther left the room Ada raised up on the bed as if she had wakened from the labyrinth of a strange dream. What was she doing here, she wondered, on this woman’s bed in a city far from her home? What business of hers was this woman’s troubles? In Springfield, Esther had always told her how pretty she was and what beautiful hair she had, how nicely it took a wave . . . . But this was something else. This was the future and she had come here alone.
The trauma of being forgotten by a childhood friend foreshadows the trauma of total obliteration, of death—a concern that hangs over many of these tales. And if that’s true, then being remembered by a friend represents the opposite—represents life, continuity. (Gallagher captures that dynamic in “Recourse,” where childhood sweethearts return to each others’ lives.)
I think that dichotomy explains what I find so powerful about these stories: friendship, for Gallagher, seems a way of claiming a stable existence, a consistent self. It even seems a way of challenging immortality. So if the self appears as threatened as ever, then relationships seem its frail yet frequent savior. Part of me wants to suggest that the self is not so endangered as all that, that we’re more reliably ourselves than, often, we’d like to be. My own experience with friendship both confirms and challenges this idea: on the one hand, my long-term friendships suggest some permanent quality to both me and my friends (if our relationships have lasted years, mustn’t we be the same as when we met, or have we evolved in a mysteriously exact synchrony that maintains our compatibility?) and on the other, I suspect I need friendships to feel like myself, and to remind myself of who I am. It’s in a similar spirit that Ada, forgotten by her childhood friend, feels so totally disoriented. “This was something else,” Gallagher writes. That “something else” haunts the tales of The Man from Kinvara, and now haunts me.
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Abigail Deutsch‘s review of The Man from Kinvara first appeared in TLR’s Spring 2010 issue, How To Read Music.