Michael Downs's debut collection of short fiction, The Greatest Show, offers ten subtly stirring stories that illuminate the lives of a large cast of characters, all of whom share one thing in common: they were touched—sometimes tragically, sometimes tangentially—by the infamous Hartford circus fire of 1944. The collection opens with the story of Ania, a young Polish woman who has recently immigrated to Hartford with her devoted husband. As good as he is, Ania cannot find a way to love him, and so she despairs: "she worried that she had never loved Charlie at all, that she had only agreed to accept his passion because it pleased her, then had mistaken her decision for something more." Hurt and confounded, he enlists to fight in the war in Europe. While he is away, Ania cleans houses for money and then, from one well-to-do household, steals two tickets to the circus. The ill-fated day she takes her three-year-old son to the show, a freakish fire destroys the circus, killing nearly two hundred people. Ania and her son's long recovery brings her husband back to the States and, ultimately, she makes a tenuous peace with her loveless feelings for him: "it would have to do, there being nothing else." The imperfection she must live with, underscored by the physical imperfections that now mar her life, announces the central theme of the book: people in Downs's world attempt to make the best of their broken dreams.
These are quiet stories, in the tradition of Winesburg, Ohio, and their interrelations, as characters return and cross into the lives of other characters, give the collection the dramatic weight and complexity of a novel. We catch up with Ania, for example, forty years later, after she has settled comfortably into her eccentricities and become the object of a rootless art student's fascination. Suzanne, the student, believes this scarred survivor could help solve her problems:
Pain had power to attract ... rescuing hands. It must. You just had to know how to use it. But now all the old woman could say was, ‘We were fortunate. Others were not,' as if all suffering-Suzanne's, too-were an accident, a coin flip, a dice roll.
Like many of Downs's characters, Suzanne is desperate for some control, if not comfort, in her life. In the end, she finds much-needed comfort but only after surrendering that control. And Ania, hardened by years of compromise, shows her humanity in a way that surely shakes her.
In other stories, we catch up with Teddy, Ania's son, first as a child learning to accept his scars, then later as a man, successful but unsettled and searching. Early in the collection, we meet Nick, a romantic boxer in mourning for his sister, who died in the fire, and then we see him later, as a young father, and later still as an old man, flirting with dementia. In the title story, about a circus having to cancel its Hartford show the day it opens, on 9/11, we meet Ted again, this time with a wife and a yearning to revisit the scene of his early trauma: a three-ring circus. Although the circus troupe has necessarily canceled its show, it decides to put one on anyway-for the sake of Ted and his wife, who have sneaked into the empty arena. In a turn that could have offered little more than the-show-must-go-on sentiment, Downs offers instead some surprises that gratify the reader's sense of everyday wonder. Most gratifying of all, the story ends in a whisper.
In other words: there is no high drama in The Greatest Show, except the now long-ago fire, and that is as it should be because most of us don't live high drama. Downs's world is the real, everyday show that must go on. And, in every story of this splendid collection, he illustrates why that show is great, as in this passage that describes the circus roustabouts in the title story:
Our roustabouts come from everywhere, and they are cruel to each other, and they defend each other like family, and some nights would cut each other's throats. They know better than any of us that a circus is a heavy thing. They push lions' steel cages into the arenas and push them out ... If people understood the full weight of the show they watch, they would be crushed. The roustabouts bear it piece by muscle-tearing piece. They raise it in a day. They dismantle it in a few hours, leaving no sign that it ever was.
As for those who survived the infamous fire, they carry the hot embers of its memory and that is drama enough in the small compass of their lives.
For a fleeting moment, I considered skipping "Stranger" in Little Raw Souls, Steven Schwartz's third story collection (and fifth work of fiction). The problem: This work had already won me over, many times over, ever since its inclusion in the terrific Warren Wilson anthology The Story Behind the Story. Having read and taught the story a half-dozen times before, what else would it have to teach me? But I did read again and in doing so was reminded of what looms large in Schwartz's stellar work.
Most of the eleven stories are set in the American West—be it Mountain, South, or Pacific—places where sunsets tend to stretch. Fittingly, characters are often versed in life's tricks and illusions. While they may not have wrung much wisdom from their years, they continue persisting with open, even hopeful hearts, not baffled shrugs or jaded irony. They haven't given up on the good life, just the notion that shortcuts exist that can get them anywhere better, any faster.
The plots move briskly, juggling a mugging at gunpoint, a house up in flames, debilitating illness, and a school's hostage situation. It might seem that a story reuniting formerly flirtatious cousins for a swim—with one now a different gender—is headed for outlandish territory. That Schwartz finds tenderness and mystery in this proposition is remarkable. In an editor's note last year (Schwartz oversees the fiction chosen at Colorado Review), the author explained that one standard he admires in a story is when subtext "acts as a gravitational force." So it goes in Little Raw Souls: history and past mistakes swell beneath characters, informing or shading their decisions and hesitancies. The strange events occurring here never feel staged. Schwartz resists letting situation overtake his characters, ensuring that the two elements are, as John Gardner argued for, "interpenetrating". Speaking of the art of fiction, the book is pitched beautifully between old-world storytelling and current concerns, including a couple of stories teasing at the underside of today's star-making publishing world, filled with "hot, young virgins with their sexy purring prose that passed as edgy literary work".
Now about that oft-read story mentioned earlier, "Stranger". In it, a woman who recently buried her father finds herself in an airport, wrung out and waiting to board. Triggered by an incident where her wallet and forms of I.D. are stolen, she mulls an opportunity to embrace a brief, spontaneous second identity—while violating the secure one awaiting her back home. In other words, Schwartz lets his creations experience life in full, messy bloom, offering ample opportunities to end up in unexpected destinations. Just expect turbulence and delays.
"She is spinning this world inside the other." Sarah Gridley's third collection, Loom, indeed spins a new world out of the dismantled one of Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott." Tennyson's ballad is mysterious: the Lady is secluded in a tower, forbidden to look directly toward the busy world outside her window. She must instead face a mirror, which catches glimpses of what passes her window's frame. She is forced to weave those images on the tapestry. Longing for amorous connection, she sees the "bold Sir Lancelot" briefly appear in her mirror, a sight that makes her turn from the flat life of reflections to that which is alive and real. The mirror cracks, and the curse is fulfilled as she dies in the river sailing to Camelot.
Gridley's Loom begins with that tension between reflection and experience. She writes, "Thoreau said the perception of beauty // is a moral test—and—How vain it is / to sit down and write // when you have not stood up to live." Gridley does not separate the mediated "world of shadows" (perhaps the province of writing, reading, perception) from the factual world we experience through all the senses; at times one serves as the warp, the other the weft. They are fused, and at times productively confused. The word "loom" itself denotes both the perceived phenomenon—to loom, to suddenly appear into view, to appear distorted—and the apparatus for making garments. Gridley's keen attention to the etymological histories of words invites us to do the same. Within the rich "textile" we read the "text." One senses that for Gridley the act of reading is a lexical experience, a transportive event.
For me, reading Loom is a transportive and lexical event. The book is patterned into three exquisite sequences. The first, "Shadows of the World Appear," introduces images that recur throughout the collection in various permutations, namely: the bath, which holds the floating body; the sea urchin, which we learn will grow "larger than its dugout" (where it shelters) "at which point it is said to be / IN FOR LIFE." The book proceeds tangentially, which is to say, the themes touch each other—they don't make parallels. That notion of captivity calls to mind the Lady in the tower, or the isolated poet. Gridley writes, "Then it must depend // on food drifting to it."
The second portion of the book, called "The Heart is Dependent on the Outside World," is made up of prose poems whose perfect, rectangular shapes recall swatches of fabric, or the window frames that furnish the Lady's room. Present here is Gridley's gift to move with ease between quoted speech—often that of a philosopher or a naturalist—plainly declarative sentences, and a line that (playfully) communicates before it is understood, as Eliot said. The line "Light climbs the Latin" may sound unintelligible, but it becomes nonetheless true in the poem "Edifice," making tall buildings out of the letters. In what is an example of a plainer mode, "Was it anonymity or truth or hope when early photographers wrote in place of signatures, Sol fecit: The sun made it," Gridley beautifully complicates those ideas of perceptibility and image-making that pervade her book.
The final sequence "Half-Sick of Shadows" returns to a the slender line and white space, "Come to the spare page: / the imaginary world seems promised here. A fly-leaf says nothing." The book insists that the blank page, or the canvas, waits to become populated like the Lady's tapestry. But the illusion fractures, as the poems do, with the cracking of the mirror. In a way, Loom follows Tennyson's poem chronologically. The Lady's body becomes the beautiful object perceived and then depicted. Gridley shows us model and painter:
She is paid alright
to sit for the painting.
If he can get her to float,
fully clothed, in bathwater, it will this way
solve the problem: how to give death (its real aspect)
to the living subject. He is working so hard
her teeth are chattering.
Many objects occur and reoccur in Gridley's Loom: book of spells, hand at work, hinges, enclosures, markets, rivers, fog, the letter opener. She brings them all into the common field of the book, and while Loom is intricate with beauty, the poems are no mere tangle of knotted thread. The activity of this book is interconnectivity. "I wanted to transplant words onto paper with soil sticking to their roots" writes Susan Howe in Souls of the Labadie Tract, a distant cousin, I would say, of Gridley's book. I believe they may share a common relationship to the idea of correspondence with the dead, and to words themselves as organic things.
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