I will admit up front that I am not a big short story reader. The closest I have come is novellas (Michelle Herman or Magnus Mills for example). But I decided it was time to widen my horizons a little.
I had stumbled upon Brock Clarke’s Ordinary White Boy in a discount bookstore and enjoyed his unique writing. I even conducted a Q&A with my fellow Ohioan (Clarke is a professor at the University of Cincinnati). So when his latest collection of short stories was recently released I thought I should catch up with Clarke and his work. Besides reading the award winning (Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction) Carrying the Torch I went back and read his first collection of stories, What We Won’t Do. Look for a review of Carrying the Torch and another author interview in the coming days.
What We Won’t Do was also an award winning collection, winning the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Like Ordinary White Boy, the stories are set in the town of Little Falls in upstate New York. The characters in What We Won’t Do all have about them a sense of impending doom; a sort of tragic mediocrity. At the heart of the stories is the mess we make of the relationships in our lives. They are about expectations and disappointments and the inability to reach our dreams. The characters are middle class or perhaps lower middle class and they reflect the mix of anger, regret and apathy that comes from realizing that you will never quite achieve the “American Dream.” Success seems to always be just out of reach.
Added to this is a sense of the surreal. Whether it is the fathers who starve themselves to shock their sons out of their apathy and laziness, the son who watches his father empty the trash naked, the thirty-three year old who returns to the sixth grade, the snow plow operator relating his life story to the dead women his brother hit with the plow, or the town that hangs an elephant after it kills a seven year old boy, there is something almost other worldly, something off-kilter or twisted, about the stories.
It is hard to put your finger on the perspective of these tales. Are they depressing? Fatalistic? Stoic? I am not sure. Maybe all of the above. What Clarke seems to be saying is “this is life.” Life is weird, harsh, beautiful, unpredictable and yet all so predictable. The character’s extremes and the surreal nature of the stories serve to highlight and illuminate the same issues we all deal with in life. How we wake up one day to find our life has not really gone as planned. How we find ourselves unhappy with our jobs, or stifled in our relationships, unsure of what the future holds. Or how we know, in that split second of pre-thought, that we shouldn’t say what we are about to say or do what we are about to do. We know that a host of negative consequences will follow from these actions, and looking back we can’t really explain why we didn’t stop, but we go ahead and say what we shouldn’t say or do what we shouldn’t do and watch the consequences follow.
To add to this sense of the inevitable, Clarke has a way of diving into the stories in a way that hooks you and pulls you forward. Here are a few examples of first sentences:
– Bad blood down at the VA hospital. Outside we’ve got a widespread killing frost, and I’m in knots over my Wandering Jews. Inside, the cripples are cranking it up on the subject of Jacksonville, Florida.
– I’m with my wife, Mary Kay, and her ex-husband, Scoot, and we’re crouched behind a row of evergreen bushes waiting for my father to take out his trash naked.
– My brother and I are out plowing the secondaries the morning after a big spring snowstorm – my brother in one plow, me behind him in another – and I can see my brother is way to fast, and I think: If he doesn’t watch out he is going to hit something. And then he does not watch out and he does hit something. It is a women.
– It is the first day of school and already, Mrs. Posely wants to make love to me. She tells me so as we file out of the classroom, on the way to recess. But Mrs. Posely also says that she feels horribly conflicted/ For one, she is married; for another, I am a student in her sixth grade class.
Clarke often focuses in on that moment when everything falls apart. His characters narrate the story looking back and it is as if the camera zooms in and goes slow-mo on the pending destruction. It is this focus that gives the stories a sharpness and poignancy. Reader’s lives may not be falling apart to the same degree but we can all relate to that feeling.
A good example is The World, Dirty Like a Heart. The narrator is at a party that seems to be spinning out of control when he spots the host’s seventh grade son drinking a beer:
The boy was red-eyed and considering me from underneath his hair, which was long and had the look of sweat to it. I squatted the way baseball coaches do in front of their young sports. If there had been grass I would have plucked a blade and chewed on it until my gums bled. Here was something I could do. You’re a teacher, I thought. Teach. There was beauty to be salvaged in all the ugly places.
“I remember when I was you,” I told him. “I remember what it was like. I know what it is to be just yea high to this terrible old world.”
“So what?” He said, pointing his beer bottle at my forehead. “You’re just one more in a long line of asswipes.”
Which is why I slapped him, right across the face. He didn’t seem to care, the little monster, stood there like his life had always been that way and it wasn’t half bad. But his parents sure cared, nitrous oxide and the splintering of their family unit regardless. They raised a stink. Eventually, they made certain everybody knew, school board and parents included. This night, however, they just yelled murder. A crowd gathered. I was on my knees. I looked up, and Cass was there with the seersucker. She looked grim, and I pleaded with her in great dramatic fashion. “Where are the waters of Childhood? I asked.
Was he wrong to slap the child? Was it wise to immediately get in a fight with the smart aleck in the seersucker suit who had been hitting on his wife? Hard to say. But he had to know nothing good would come of it.
I hope the above captures in some way the stories in this collection. Brock Clarke brings a unique and interesting perspective to his work; one that is likely beyond my skills to capture (for more on Clarke’s stories see here). I would say, if you enjoy stories that are quirky and a little tragic but with a strong sense of blunt realism you will enjoy What We Wont Do.