Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Slow Transit: Stories by Michael C. Keith

Slow Transit: Stories by Michael C. Keith
Červená Barva Press, 2017
ISBN 978-0-9984253-6-8
226 pp., $18.00

Reviewed by David P. Miller

Prolific author and scholar Michael C. Keith presents Slow Transit, the most recent of a dozen short story collections. Recently retired from Boston College, Keith has also written many books on mass communication, as well as a memoir and a novel for young adults. The present collection consists of eighty-two stories (if my count is right), ranging in length from brief paragraphs of flash fiction to a half dozen or more pages. Many are two to three pages. There’s a lot to choose from here, a lot to sample as one might a basket of treats. These stories are typically infused with ironic humor, a love of surprise, even reveling in uncertainty. Most impressive is Keith’s seemingly unquenchable facility for uncovering the outlandish in the everyday. I’ll describe a handful of the stories that stand out for me (there are many more), and attempt not to give much away – not easily done.

Keith prefaces many of his stories with epigraphs, and Cézanne’s remark at the head of the story “Acceptance” is particularly appropriate: “We live in a rainbow of chaos.” The urban dwellers of this story resort to calling the police, due to their neighbors’ bizarre sleep-destroying behavior. But is this activity truly unlawful, or merely random? Out of bounds, or just a band of the rainbow?

Although titles are essential literary elements, in a collection of often very short stories titles make up a significant part of the word count and do proportionately more work than usual. The title of “The Pictures on Dorian’s Computer” almost, but not quite, gives away the story. A deft contemporary riff on Oscar Wilde, it’s chilling as was the original, although of course much briefer at four pages. In keeping with Keith’s writing world, the end twist diverges from Wilde’s, heading off in a direction maybe more shudder-full. You might think that the title “Indescribable: A Totally Unsatisfying Short Story” would excuse you from actually reading the story. But instead, so forewarned, you could instead enjoy how its single paragraph empties itself out as you read, self-undermined just in time for the classically center-justified “The End.” And it’s the title that especially frames the humor of “2047.” Yes, suffering is eternal and the cure can be as bad as the disease, as people say. Apparently, we’ll keep saying it into the far future, as the less there is to complain about, the louder the complaints are.

The surprise of “A Second Opinion” comes from a kind of thickening of its situation instead of a contradiction. Elliott, concerned about his erratic heartbeat, conducts a strenuous internal monologue in the process of consulting a cardiologist. We expect the outcome will take place in a medical office, but Elliott suddenly blurts what we need to know in front of his TV. This one-page story is stuffed full of red herring. (Hard work this, avoiding spoilers.)

Funny as hell, “Exceptional Service” is a narcissist’s nightmare – or should be. For Trumplings convinced that it’s all about me, this one’s yours. Some sorcerer’s apprentice has unleashed, not brooms, but delivery trucks at the door. Satisfied yet, narcissist? In the title story, “Slow Transit,” the inexplicable is literally uncovered, beneath the ordinary soil of a backyard garden. In three paragraphs, we move from bucolic tale to horror story to a clash of two worlds, each of which remains perfectly itself.

The reader might come to expect a steady stream of inversions and ironies, but Keith creates further species of surprise within the form of surprise itself. For example, while “Something in Reserve” reveals a superhuman power possessed by two middle-aged hikers, the twist gently nudges this half-page tale toward a hinted other dimension. There’s even practical advice in “The Major Benefit of Passing,” a brief meditation on one’s death that is not only wry, but oddly comforting.

A memoir, “Sarge” is possibly the most unexpected in this gaggle of unexpecteds. As a supply room clerk in a Korean missile base in 1962, Keith has as superior officer one Sergeant Brennan, a lifer, hard drinker and survivor of duty in two wars. In one sense, there’s nothing outstanding about Sarge. He’s in bad health, worn, and doggedly stuck with the only life he knows how to have. But Keith renders this forgotten man’s particularity with such heart that his loss is palpable. I found myself pausing in silence, embarrassed to have passed by many such people without a thought.

Michael Keith has been a nominee for the Pen/O. Henry Award, in addition to other nominations. And while that’s simply logical given his sensibility, it’s too easy to stick every surprise conclusion with the “O. Henry ending” label. But at least one story in this collection qualifies: “It’s the Gift That Counts.” Like Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” it’s a Christmas tale, but in place of a poor young couple, here are older parents receiving a surprise from their newly prosperous son. They are, in fact, surprised twice: the twist arises, not from karma gone off the rails or benignly aimless Kismet, but from the situation’s own quietly implicit dynamics.

I’d like to be able to quote all two sentences of “God Is Just,” one of the collection’s extremely brief gems. Instead, I’ll say that retribution and revelation are sometimes simultaneous, sudden, and sweet. Another two-sentence work, “Pro-Dactive,” made me laugh out loud (I won’t give even you a clue). Other hilarious items include “The Intransitive” (also too brief to even hint at) and “Oops!!”, one of the most over-the-top tales of disastrous marriage ever.

In short, a not-entirely-random preview of the entertainment and wit of Slow Transit and the imaginative world of Michael C. Keith. It’s a world that borders, or lurks just behind our own. Or perhaps it’s what our world thinks about when it’s up with insomnia. Or maybe it simply is our world, and we just need to give in and admit it.

1 comment:

  1. David Miller writes reviews so well . . . and I'm being impartial.