IN THE SHADOW OF OUR HOUSE
By Scott Blackwood.
159 pp. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press. $19.95.
THE title story in this impressive and accomplished debut collection imagines the emotional ache of the doctor in Jonestown, Guyana, who discovered the followers of Jim Jones after they drank that infamous cyanide-laced punch. The doctor, now retired and back home in Texas, is dying himself (of cancer), but the memory of all those bodies — Families. Limbs intertwined. Mothers sprawled over children” — has become ”the axis around which his life winds.” In the course of things, Joseph Conrad is quoted, but the story is more original than that — in its point of view, for instance. ”In the Shadow of Our House” is narrated by the collective ”we” of the doctor’s neighbors. (”If you had lived long on our street and drunk late at our parties,” it begins.) The neighbors do more than the usual unburdening of themselves, so we learn a fair bit of their individual histories. But at the story’s center is a hallucinatory scene in which the doctor dreams about confronting Jones, who can give no more satisfying an account of the tragedy than ”Words fail.” ”That’s it?” the doctor asks. ”Words fail?”
And though we have the story before us to testify that they don’t, Scott Blackwood seems to have placed it up front as a sort of disclaimer, a warning to readers about the inadequacy of language. Another story, ”Prodigal Fathers,” underlines the point. Darnell, the father of the title, has been away from his wife and son for months, working on a movie crew. He comes home for Christmas three days late because he has spent the holiday with his lover. His son has guessed the reason for the delay, and when Darnell finally arrives, the boy asks him if he has a girlfriend. ”I tried to think of something to say,” Darnell reports, ”words that would fall meaningfully into place, like in Scrabble. Single truths about relationships, integrity.” But he can think of nothing but an obvious lie.
It is not only language that is failing in these stories, which are set in Texas among people whose marriages are falling apart and whose children are going astray. And though one story, describing a river that both erodes its banks and deposits silt to form new ones, notes that there is ”loss and compensation everywhere,” it is difficult to find anything here but loss. Yet the cumulative effect is not entirely sad, perhaps because these stories are so honest as they capture the dapple of emotions and perceptions that cross the mind like sunlight and shadow on a river.
One of these perfectly described interludes comes in a companion story to ”Prodigal Fathers,” told from the point of view of Darnell’s wife, Kay. She is grieving over the death of their other son (indeed, Darnell’s infidelity may be his own response to grief). Sitting alone in her car, drinking peach wine coolers, Kay has one of those moments, not exactly epiphanies, when, in the midst of intense emotion, the eye is suddenly caught by an inconsequential detail that becomes engraved in memory. For Kay, it is the sight of a woman in a red sundress talking on a pay phone, holding her little girl by the shoulders. As Kay watches, the woman begins shouting into the phone, the child breaks free and the woman’s change spills to the ground. Kay longs to tell her that ”it would be all right, whatever had happened, though I knew it wasn’t true. She would have to live without things. But knowing this wouldn’t make it any easier.”
Kay may be wrong, you think as you finish the story, the last in the collection. For just as the act of reading this book disproves the contention that words fail, the characters in it manage to survive their losses. They carry on, perhaps destructively or self-destructively, and they never entirely succumb, are never frozen in despair. As Darnell says, ”For the most part, I think we do the best we can, with uneven results.”Darnell’s modest claim for our human strivings, though humbling, is right on the mark, as are these acute and nimble stories.
Julie Gray is on the editorial staff of Town & Country magazine.
Blackwood penetrates life’s shadows with disarming candor, piercing the gloom Of contemporary domesticity in a debut collection of nine powerful and poignant short stories. Each resonates with the stark reality born of desolation. Intricately subtle, resolutely ambiguous, Blackwood’s stories benefit from multiple visits, encouraging the reader to peel back layer after tenuous layer on a provocative voyage of discovery. Disaffected teenagers, divorced parents, dejected lovers–all face relentless scrutiny as Blackwood probes the camouflaged insecurities, doubts, and betrayals that lead to the dissolution of families and relationships. Elegiac and contemplative, Blackwood’s angst-ridden characters face life’s major and minor challenges with discouraging results: reconciliations disenchant; marriages disintegrate; parenthood disappoints.
Blackwood excels at spare and singular characterizations, as in the title story’s evocative portrait of the elderly physician who unwittingly discovered the bodies at Guyana’s Jonestown massacre and remains forever bound by the memory. There are no happy families residing in Blackwood’s house, and he views his characters with a distant familiarity, as if from an obscure and illusory vantage point.
A strong debut collection about family disasters and betrayals explores ordinary dramas extraordinarily. Forced change–death and divorce–descend on these characters who are all caught in a kind of purgatory between happiness and failure, unsure which way to turn and often acting out criminally as a result.
In “Nostalgia,” a man watches his wife and her lover move while contemplating his own arrest for breaking into 0.Henry’s house. In “New Years,” a woman must confront her husband’s literal purgatory–a cracked head and hospital stay from a fall in the snow on New Year’s Eve–while confronting as well his younger girlfriend. Nature and instinct intrude throughout, our sedated civilization set beside a kind of emotional wilderness that threatens in the form of weather, vandals, and random evil thoughts. In “Riverfest,” nature becomes real in the form of water and navigating on it–or, rather, failing to, as a man discovers his own capacity for violence, thanks to another forced ending in his life. Blackwood, coordinator of the Writing Center at the University of Texas (Austin), is capable of sly, sudden poign- ancy–you can feel him learning and growing with sketches like “One of Us Is Hidden Away,” a convincing portrait of a young pregnant woman alone in her dilemma. The title story may owe its voice and distance to Jeffrey Eugenides’s Virgin Suicides, but these nine tales just as often recall Margaret Atwood or Michael Martone. Unique, though, is the detailing of ordinary crisis, enlivened by a delayed, drawn-out feel. Real time is revealed to be unrevealing, and characters linger like ghosts, resisting the change they will ultimately fail to avoid. Several stories about the same set of characters and events suggest that this writer has his eye on the bigger picture. Sad families, haunted by the familiar, creep inside you and linger there. A newcomer to follow.