The Winter 2006 issue of the Nassau Literary Review has been out since January, meaning that if you haven’t read it by now, you’ll need to pull some strings to even get a copy. And yet you should. Think of it as a wise investment: ask the editors for a copy now, and win the lottery later. Not an exacting task, and very necessary, but to help convince you I’ve reviewed all the wonderful fiction in the NLR so that you get a sense of what you’re missing. And what you’re missing, mon frère, is pleasin’.
The first story, appropriately titled “Slightly Parched but Still Keeping my Head Above the Rising Water,” comes from the pen of one Caroline Loevner, whose dehydrated narrator sounds like she is trying to cast off a sinister past that encroaches, that rolls over her as she, aloof, sedate—why can’t you notice?—lies motionless in the beach where you (you of course being her now ex) once promised that “You would never leave me. Never. Leave. Me.”
With such hammering pace, vague wordings, and a central image of dryness that is sure to make you thirsty, the story quickly shows you how remarkable it is. This story doesn’t bother with trite literary clichés like “plot” and “structure”; it transfers at ease from the ramblings of a neglected teenager to those of a neglected woman. The story never risks making sense.
Yet through the controlling image, some beauty shows. You’ll read a sentence like “The skin of my hands splits and cracks like the floor of a dried riverbed” and find that Loevner can pepper even the stalest of images with lyricism and bite. It’s almost poetic, I think. The NLR, by the way, also prints student poetry, for those into this sort of thing.
In Blair Hurley’s “Dodging,” a boy skips school and walks around the city. Alongside its unassuming protagonist, plot, and diction, “Dodging” features a neat cast of characters who avoid others out of fear, discomfort, and even sympathy. Everything comes back to theme of the boy’s runaway dad and his mom’s ensuing loneliness.
Without any particularly striking turns of phrase, the story has the firm, direct feel of much professional fiction. It’s hard to give you a clearer sense because the style is too conventional to imitate, as are the devices: the kid essentially projects his general state of mind onto those around him. However, I ultimately like the piece; it is technically polished and clear enough that you can read it, think “of course,” and go on.
While you’re at it, check out “Grandfather Shura,” Maria Shpolberg’s profile of a Slavic aristocrat. This is not so much a story of causes and effects, but a fond list of cool things and people that I am, alas, not Slavic enough to appreciate—but you go ahead. It’s one page long. In the time it takes to make popcorn, you can read words like “White Army,” “potential Gypsy,” etc.
When your popcorn is done find a place to sit and read the piece by Chris Arp. Like most hallucinations, “Hello.” is a bitch to describe. It’s a gay little play—and “gay” not in the pejorative sense, although it is campy—but no: Arp’s play will send you back playfully to your childhood, when you used to spin around until you could barely make out your surroundings (yet since then you’ve also learned to drink until it is not you who’s spinning but the room, and you could make out with anyone in your surroundings), this is also how the play works.
In surrealist form at its finest, the three characters replay the same basic scene: the half-awake center of a bizarre love triangle tells his or her significant other what to make for dinner while secretly flirting with the side-interest. The three characters switch through these roles, but the same objects keep coming back, always with different meanings. The result is an exhilarating merry-go-round of cows getting run over, people “breaking up,” and pasta, which I would hate to spoil.
If a gentler Pynchon wrote Charlie Brown, it might sound like Rob Madole’s “Camp Longhorn.” In the story, a young boy gets sent to a summer camp, gets homesick, and then grows fond of a girl. An easy plot to thread—and yet Madole’s verbal fireworks give the tale all the rich tension of childhood. A quick taste:
“And as the noise of music and chatter drew closer and the dusk grew thick, the boys in William’s cabin were infused with a nighttime swagger, a reckless air of confidence humming to the distant but approaching strands of pubescence.”
This ambitious diction sometimes devolves, like the camp itself, into a “divergent noise forming a symphonic cacophony of childish energy.” While at times the piece would profit, so to speak, from an occasional inclusion of the patterns of everyday speech, there is good sound and a lot of loveliness. Can’t wait to see what Madole will publish next.
On the topic of ambition, I can think of few titles bolder than Jason Wu’s “The True Heartbeat of the World.” In tune with the title, the first paragraph is a fascinating barrage of sensations: “the sea-swell of a hundred thousand voices mingling at the edge of pavilions and scattering to the low hills beyond, the report of three gunshots, the cry of one heron,” and so on. Later the story cools down, and we learn that the young people of a Chinese village are having a river race.
Through the violent, somewhat obscure diction, we piece together a story that I’d summarize if I felt I had the authority. There’s a lot of Communism in some scenes; others warmly deal with marketplace haggling, or with a trip through the jungle primeval. At some point they shoot a heron. There’s a twist ending, I think.
The lesson here is not to ask any questions. I’d praise the story on its exuberance, melody, and richness of detail, and excuse that it doesn’t add up to a narrative because hey, the world’s heartbeat is just as discordant. But then the story’s overtly symbolic tone reminds me that there’s some clue I’m missing and that by the end I don’t know what the title means. (If you do, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Talk to me.)
From the creative mind of Nicholas Lilly comes “A Fairy Tale Concerning a Dairy Family, the Krowas.” The story chronicles three generations of Krowas, a Polish farm-owning family in Wisconsin. The fantastic tale revolves around strange connections between the Krowas and their cows—usually, the women conceive and give birth at the same time as their cows, and additionally the mothers die in labor. In a clever move, the story never talks about these symmetries in magical terms; rather, it incorporates them into a tale of dearth and solitude.
That said, the story sometimes gets geometric and bland, as when things happen in places near the perimeter of adjacent locations, and not, for instance, in “fallow clover fields.” A lot of setting relies on name-dropping that does little for atmospherics and makes you wonder why you’re reading a census report. But forget the clunky bits: even when the focus switches from the farm’s toil to the daughter who’s leaving for college, the tone stays consistent, which keeps this an easy, pleasurable read. Perhaps it could be shorter and more haunting, but it’s not at all bad for a freshman—and Lilly is a senior, but still.
If you’re not convinced yet, read about Katie Sheaffer’s “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.” Note that she didn’t pay me to say these things (though I will accept donations) and that we’re not yet friends.
Sheaffer’s story pits Monty, a weak-willed, easygoing guy, against the weight of his imagined life. He has planned the whole of his career around inherited dreams, and in his innocence he is left vulnerable when others see through the act that, to him, seems real. Then in a shocking scene he is all but destroyed when he sees how disconnected he’s been from his true nature, and how treacherous the gap is between performance and life.
I am trying not to sound vague. On one hand, I don’t want to spoil anything, and on the other I could not in this short space show you how all the objects work together. Suffice it to say that the tale utilizes unobtrusive yet compelling symbols that refract the story’s meaning through their lenses.
Every insight rings sincere; the characters are well developed and complex, though never overexposed. Their stories progress with a remarkable sense of dramatic timing, so that the reader feels every blow to its potential. There’s an elegant simplicity in the diction, always fresh and precise, but never excessive.
Mix all these elements, and ta-da. You get the work of an amazing imagination: a lonely man’s tragedy, the infrequency with which people approach him, his quickness to form attachments to the few who do, and his pain when they break the bonds that meant so much less to them. By far the most moving story in the last issue of the NLR, and, like the other ones, a recommendable read if you’re into beauty, laughter, or craft.