(Oxford, OH: Miami University Press, 2019)
For a familial investigation of self-discovery preferring to simmer instead of boil, Paul Skenazy’s Temper CA, winner of the Miami University Press 2018 Novella Prize, conspicuously decides to extract its choice moments not through dramatic confrontations but through the various curses of its drained locale, moments manifesting themselves in a kind of psychoactive response by characters who don’t want to be there at all. In one such instance, after fending off a sexual assault in the family graveyard by Penny, a casual fling soon turning serious, our narrating protagonist Joy Temper broods with both dismissive righteousness and retribution of her buried descendants at hand: “A part of me missed Penny. The rest wanted to stick a knife through her. I didn’t have the strength to do either.” This palpable exhaustion of what remains attached to land itself — name, status and property, to name a few — and the continual battle over possessing its memory if not its past, are often close to Skenazy’s taut storyline, set in a fictional town somewhere in former Gold Rush territory California. Temper, founded by its namesake upon the back of mining concerns and a dry goods store, carries on in present day as a popular tourist destination and soon-to-be gentrified housing market, though the ill-gotten gains associated with its problematic history have merely grown into sight-seeing and the selling of kitschy t-shirts emblazoned with Prospectin’ on the front — grist for a lame joke by Penny that needles Joy along with her more overt criticisms of Temper. The cumulative discomfort has its effect. Having arrived from San Francisco for the funeral of estranged grandfather Isaac (who had split the family long ago), Joy watches her already uneasy homecoming regress into a tour of past transgressions dovetailing into present ones with a firm price attached. Nothing, says Temper CA, stays in the ground if it’s worth a mark-up to someone else.
Dig, then, Joy must. Concerning her most is the mental sandtrap of recalling her idyllic childhood there, as well as what happened exactly that prompted her mother to flee their communal home during the 1970’s, taking Joy with her to the city for good. The source of Isaac’s impotent wrath towards her parents back in the day, however, is a particular sore spot that the Tempers prefer to keep hush about for unknown reasons. While catching up to other private affairs at the renovated family house with her genteel yet secretive father, Joy resists playing the sentimental role of damaged flower child and, like any good archivist, starts turning over photograph after photograph, perusing old newspapers, using some old-fashioned sleuthing to discover what was behind the dissolution of her freewheeling family, including a mysterious sidebar as to the circumstances of Isaac’s death and who’s hanging out at the abandoned China Mine. Not far behind these, too, is Joy’s ruminating over the tenuous state of her longtime relationship with her more upwardly mobile girlfriend Angie (accelerated by Penny’s sudden intercession, to be sure), and whether she can put Temper the town behind her for good, if not the baggage of everything that comes with her name. How Skenazy manages unearthing these tangents with minimal prose and fast, steady pacing is noteworthy to the effectiveness of the book, an effectiveness achieved without its having to plunge constantly into a dark abyss of flawed memory that threatens to upend other developments. Joy gets closer to better understanding a family history that has eluded her (“The movies and soaps have it wrong: we don’t notice change in what we do so much as what we stop doing”), and the story grows in rectifying the present for her character in other ways by searching for the innocents beside herself who were left neglected, cast aside.
A family became a town that should have never been, and a town becomes what’s left of a broken family: the wreckage appears unassuming to anyone but Joy and her caustic lover Penny. And the fate of Temper itself is almost of no real concern to those who should be most concerned about what it now represents, perhaps not unlike other American boomtowns built on such dubious foundations, reminds Skenazy. Beyond facing up to those profiting off the exploitation (near-sighted developer Cheryl and her dream of re-opening the mine), Joy’s own search hardly alleviates the insurmountable damage done in the eyes of this novella, which operates to reveal and not to offer absolution to those who don’t need or want it anymore. As a muted, fractured reunion for all parties involved, Skenazy’s sporadic detective tale of sorts explores instead the burden of possible trauma amidst the obvious corruption yet to come, of how the truth is made to suffer for those who have already been harmed, and the resolve to undo the angst surrounding that truth. Looking for uplifting redemption? Look elsewhere. Temper, California may front as a harmless tourist trap, but soon Joy will figure it’s the wholesale theft for a fading legacy that not even the local heat can set straight.
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Forrest Roth is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Marshall University in West Virginia. His recent novel is Gary Oldman Is a Building You Must Walk Through (What Books Press, 2017), with his shorter fictions having appeared in NOON, Denver Quarterly, Juked, Timber, and other journals. Links can be found at www.forrestroth.blogspot.com.