Thursday, August 22, 2013

Clifford Garstang, "In an Uncharted Country"

Clifford Garstang, In an Uncharted Country. Winston-Salem: Press 53 (2009), 186 pp.

I read the first story in this collection, “Flood, 1978,” over two years ago. I left a bookmark, and placed the book tepidly on a shelf awaiting a second go at the right time. And that time came a few days ago, after which I wolfed down the whole collection. “Flood, 1978” still didn’t do much for me upon revisiting it, but the second story, “Saving Melissa,” was strong enough to keep me reading the rest of the anthology.

There are things I liked throughout the book. The dialogues were well executed, both credible and revealing. Some descriptions were right on the mark, such as this one, about a character who thinks about his dead mother: “She’d been gone so long. He tried to remember, but the image of her he conjured was distorted, as if through thick glass” (p. 177). The descriptions of nature (floods, snowstorms, woods, fields) are luscious and believable. The vignettes of small-town life are well done. The events in some stories put characters to the test—and drive readers to the edge of the seat. The author is also capable of producing pathos, as he does with the scene of a woman who fades away in her husband’s arms (pp. 12-13), or with a passage in which a man pets his dead dog (p. 163).

All in all, there were three stories I liked best.

“The Nymph and the Woodsman” was probably the strangest in the collection, about a man who starts a family with a nymph called Beauty, but also with a woman called Belle. These two strands of the story dovetail at the end, keeping a good pace—and a sense of intrigue—up to the final moment. It deserves to be read at least twice. Probably not three times, though, because the main character is tough to stomach.

“Heading for Home” is good, too. It’s about an African American deputy sheriff who investigates the death of a cow. He finds the culprit, but this escalates into a racially charged confrontation. There are interesting thoughts on affirmative action and on the doubts and discomfort that hover around lingering racism and racial integration.

My favorite story of the lot: “Saving Melissa.” Here’s the first paragraph:
“The rain fell hard, sheeting down my windshield, noon sky dark, clouds rumbling. It was a chilly June: Melissa not in school, playing sweetly on the farmhouse porch with that one Barbie Max let her keep, one I gave her, on her chubby knees, glancing up now and then trying not to fear the thunder. The new wife slept inside, in my bed, or chopped onions in my kitchen, sipped tea from my wedding china. Paid no attention to the child. My child.”

As you can tell, we jump right into things, and this voice presupposes a level of familiarity that makes us believe that we are really gaining access to this person’s uncensored thoughts. Who’s Max? An ex of “the new wife,” so that the person who’s looking in is, say, Melissa’s father right before he gets home? Why don’t people notice him, though? And why all the possessives (my bed, my kitchen, my wedding china, my child)? Things become clearer soon, and we see that the girl is abducted by her mother and taken to lead a life of disarray, a hectic life in which mother and daughter move often and go through experiences that will mark the young girl forever. The first person point of view, the abductor’s point of view, confronts us with a person who’s a mess, but who acts on good intentions. It makes us accomplices of what we see, even as we have to continue reading.

That was the high point of the collection for me. Other stories are readable, sure. But they often bear too evidently the imprint of the workshop. Digressions—with explanations that would be best built into the forward movement of the plot—slow down the pace, almost to the point that the stories would more confidently quicken if made quicker. The clutter produced by these digressions often gets in the way of a good, thrilling, enjoyable story.

My recommendation is to dip right into “Saving Melissa.” The theme of parenthood, of missing or estranged sons and daughters, is present throughout the collection, and is quite salient in “Saving Melissa.”

One final note: the stories in the collection are linked, so that the title character from “Saving Melissa” comes up several times in the anthology, even down to the final story, in which all the major characters make an appearance. Don’t expect too much from this, but at least some of those characters you liked you’ll see more than once, which gives you a sense of an epilogue and a story arc. 

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