The opening sentence of the title story in Brock Clarke’s latest collection of stories, Carrying the Torch, is sure to get your attention (particularly if you are of the male persuasion):
I decided last night that someday soon I am going to rip my husband’s penis off with my bare hands.
With this sentence Clarke has our attention. Intent to undergo what might be called “Bobbittry” wakes up the reader and grabs his focus. From there Clarke reveals what motivates such hostility and describes how his character carries out her intent (albeit symbolically).
This is one of the strengths of Clarke’s stories, their ability to pull you in and make you want to know more about these odd, dysfunctional, yet sympathetic characters. He takes an aspect of their life or family and exaggerates it in order to shed light on the nature of relationships, families, and communities.
This is taken up symbolically in the second story, For Those of Us Who Need Such Things, where a man buys the city of Savannah, Georgia in an effort to reconnect with his ex-wife. And at the heart of almost all of Clarke’s stories is the issue of “settling.” The narrator of the above story makes it clear:
[Y]ou can’t just buy a three-hundred-year-old city and expect it to be real, anymore than you can cheat on your wife and expect her to truly love you again. And if you can’t have real cities and true love, then you settle for the next best thing.
The characters are trying to rebound from poor decisions and life’s bad breaks by giving themselves a second chance, by taking on a new identity, by changing their surroundings – taking the “next best thing” after their original ideas fell short. In What We Won’t Do the focus was on facing the facts about life in the Rust Belt of Upstate New York; admitting that your dreams might not come true but you will have to muddle through as best you can. In Carrying the Torch the characters have escaped to the New South but don’t find it any easier to get excited about their lives.
A secondary theme seems to be perspective. In The Ghosts We Love the narrator looks back on his life so far as a historian might, dividing it up into stages to try and make sense of it. The family lake house where his father died seems to symbolize the dysfunction that defines the family. He must break free of this symbol in order to get a fresh perspective on life.
In The Son’s Point of View a father tries to recall his past from his son’s perspective but finds it impossible to look at the past without trying to rationalize his own behavior. Try as he might he can’t quite put his own feelings and ideas aside and get inside his son’s head. He promises to act differently but this promise is undermined by his seeming inability to understand someone else’s point of view.
tells the story of a fifth year senior football player at Clemson unsuccessfully trying to impose his version of reality on the world. He gives himself a nickname that no one else uses or understands; he names his scooter and anthropomorphizing it in conversations; he claims sole possession of the kickoff whoop and war cry. But Dale Lerner, aka Geronimo, soon realizes that all of his antics won’t take away the loneliness or emptiness. His mother doesn’t even want him to move back home. He visits his professor seeking to intimidate his way to a passing grade and thus graduation. But his teacher confuses the issue by explaining that college is the best it is going to get for Geronimo. Seeing the wisdom in this (and his bleak future) Geronimo changes his mind and begs to be failed. The professor instead cruelly grants the initial request and insists on giving out a C. Confused Geronimo begs for help:
“Then what am I supposed to do?” Geronimo yelled. “Just tell me what I’m supposed to do.”
“Tomorrow we will feel bad, Mr. Geronimo. There is nothing we can do about it. Let us feel good tonight.” With that, the professor offered him another beer and Geronimo took it.
Geronimo takes his advice. He seeks denial and finds it in a head-butt.
As you can see, Clarke isn’t one for easy happy endings. Things start out messy and sometimes get messier. The bittersweet tone of the stories is often lightened by their fantastic nature, but I will admit on the whole they are rather depressing. I happen to enjoy melancholy and stoicism in small doses.
But through all of this his characters come to understand themselves better; they seem to get a handle on the way the world works for good or ill. And if there is a message in this collection of stories it might be that life is messy, people are messy, and that pretending otherwise won’t make it any less so.
As I noted before, I am a novice when it comes to short stories, but I found the Clarke’s stories entertaining and often thought provoking. His stories hook you in and force you to think about the nature of relationships; the way we rationalize our actions; and the way we perceive the world outside of ourselves. If that appeals to you check out Carrying the Torch, I think you will find it worth your while.