Thursday, June 16, 2022

Life Among the Terranauts, Caitlin Horrocks


Life Among the Terranauts, Caitlin Horrocks, Little, Brown, New York, 2021, 256 pages, $15.

Review by Ed Meek

Short story collections can function as writing labs for writers of fiction. They are a medium where writers can experiment with point of view, voice, and subject matter. A writer wonders why some people stay in small towns in the country, so she writes a story from their point of view. Maybe they hibernate in the winter, she thinks and works that into the story. Or she goes on a group tour to Peru and begins thinking about the tour from the point of view of the local tour guide who is leading them around. She imagines what’s going on with the other members of the group. The writer likes untranslatable phrases from other languages and so she constructs a story around a list of phrases she has collected. How about a story that is based on lines from a poem? A story about a group living in a biodome for two years?

In Life Among the Terranauts you’ll find a wide range of stories. Although the subject matter varies, Horrocks knows how to construct a plot, how to characterize the people in her stories, and she has a sense of humor. In “The Sleep,” the narrator answers the question: who lives in those small towns in America that have seen much better days?

“What kind of morons hustle for jobs that don’t even pay for cable television? What kind of people spend twenty years buying beer at the Hop-In and drinking in the quarry, the next thirty drinking at the Pointes, the last sodden ten at the Elks Lodge?

Our kind of people, we thought.”

Horrocks often writes what appears to be a conventional story about ordinary people, but then she will push the boundaries into the surreal. You may find this funny or you may have a hard time sticking with a story in which an entire town hibernates during the winter.

Sometimes the stories just feel like experimental exercises as in “The Untranslatables,” or “And Looked Down One As Far As I Could,” but they are still entertaining. Horrocks is best at long short stories. “Chance Me,” is a story within a story about a son, Justin (he goes by Just), who hasn’t seen his biological father for 16 years. He comes to Boston from Arizona and meets the father under the pretext that he is applying to colleges. The father flashes back to his days in Arizona with Justin’s mother, Willow, and their baby boy, in a utopian community run by the artist Soleri. The father, Harry, couldn’t convince the mother to leave the community so he abandons her and Justin. Now Harry is a real estate broker with a live-in girlfriend. He wants to patch things up with his son.

Wherever else his life might take him, it would not take him back there, to the red desert hills and the bleached sheet of sky snapped open every morning above them, their baby squalling in a hand-painted card-board box. Now that baby was sitting in his Lexus, six feet tall and applying to Harvard.

You can see from that passage that Horrocks can write a good line. And she is adept at assuming the voices of everyone from young men to older women and young kids. She’ll pretty much take on anything. One story is from the point of view of a granddaughter trying to figure out if her grandmother was a lesbian (as she is). Another story is from the point of view of an eight -year-old girl.

There are two great stories in the collection. “Norwegian for Troll,” and “Paradise Lodge.” Both of these stories have credible characters, compelling settings, complex plots. Who doesn’t like a story with trolls in it? The second story is set in Peru and delves into conflicts of identity and family with an adopted Peruvian-American on a trip with his red-headed American girlfriend and a Peruvian tour guide who is trying to make a major decision in his own life. If you can live with the unevenness of the stories, you can enjoy Horrocks’ talents and get a feel for what’s going on in contemporary short fiction today in America.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The Wild Goose Poems By Kevin Gallagher

The Wild Goose


By Kevin Gallagher

Loom Press

67 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

No writer distills history utilizing the form of poetic narratives better than Kevin Gallagher. In his latest effort, The Wild Goose Poems, Gallagher delves into Irish Americana, its background, and its sources. He uses a first-person sequence of poems on the rebel Irishman, then iconic Bostonian, John Boyle O’Reilly as the centerpiece of his collection. The poet leads into that sequence with a retelling of Celtic myth and finishes the book with a combination of classical myth and both local (Southie) and family lore. Think beginning, middle, and end. And that’s the way it reads.

Gallagher initiates his saga gently with a piece he entitles Birth of a Nation. Chock full of one damsel confined to a tower, one greed-filled king, the mysterious De Danaan tribe, one lovely princess, one white witch (or, in this case, a she-druid), one charming prince, and the bane of Celtic life, a stolen cow, this piece gives necessary foundation and entrances the reader in with its dreamlike sexuality. Consider these alluring and delicate lines,

As Cian stared at her

Eithlinn’s whole body went warm.

She now saw what she only heard.

She now had what she only dreamed of.

They each declared their love

for each other in the same breath

then gently took off the other’s clothes

before they could breathe another.

He buried his face in her breasts

As she put him between her thighs

and sang a long slow psalm

of love up to the skies.

Cian wanted to live with her forever

Fenian to his core, John Boyle O’Reilly was sentenced for treasonous activities by a British tribunal to imprisonment in Australia. He escaped and as a poet, espouser of Irish causes, and editor of the Boston-based national newspaper The Pilot, earned regard and fame in America. In the poem 1867 Gallagher chronicles O’Reilly’s prison ship experience. The poet captures the below-deck claustrophobia this way,

There were three hundred of us without shadows

cast by lamps under the forward hold.

We welcomed each other with loud

Laughter curses of the most evil fear.

A warm stranger gripped my arm and whispered

come O’Reilly we are waiting for you.

He led me through a small door amidships

to the space where we waited to be slaves.

After O’Reilly’s escape and raucous welcome to Boston by two thousand cheering Irishmen, he faced the reality of his political circumstances. These opening lines from Gallagher’s poem Help Wanted explain,

Positively No Irish need apply?

We were half-starved and penniless

farmers without any tools for the city.

Most of us went working on the wharfs.

Women made factory shoes or sewed from home.

We had our will, our music, and our God,

but many wondered why we traveled here.

Like most Irish immigrants O’Reilly melted into the stew of multi-ethnic America. He left his Irish grudges behind (mostly) and became more American than the Americans. Writing for the Pilot he railed against the old insular hatreds carried as baggage into his new country. When Irish Orangemen marched in the streets of New York demeaning Catholics, they were attacked and four of them gunned down by Fenians. In Gallagher’s poem, Boston Pilot, O’Reilly laments the outrage,

Why must we carry our cursed island feuds

to disturb the peace of these citizens?

We are all aliens from a petty island

in the eyes of our fellow Americans. Here

the Orange have as much right to parade

as a Fenian regiment in green.

Both parties are to be blamed and condemned,

yes both Fenians and the Orangemen.

The fishing vessel, The Valhalla, moored in Gloucester and for awhile in the Saugus River has become part of Boston Irish lore. Even Whitey Bulger, the notorious gangster, reportedly played a tangential part in this mythological drama. This reviewer, in a past life, met the Valhalla’s captain and off-loaded its cargo on the docks of Gloucester. It carried squid at the time. Later the same ship, tracked by satellite during the Reagan administration, was intercepted, carrying guns, off the coast of Ireland. Gallagher details the arms-running preparation in his poem entitled The Valhalla,

We had close to seven tons of mail-order

Weapons delivered by UPS.

We purchased them through ads in Shotgun News

by calling the 1-800 number.

We ordered ammunition cans, weapons,

training manuals, nylon rifle clips,

piles of M-16 magazines,

and rifle bags to hide them in the bogs.

We bought rocket warheads, anti-aircraft,

and 20,000 rounds home delivery special.

But the handguns, the rifles, and shotguns,

we stole those the old-fashioned way.

We packed all this in a couple of U-Hauls,

Then drove the trucks up to Gloucester Harbor.

My favorite poem in this collection, The Rose in the Elysian Fields, describes a classically based visit between the poet and his deceased father in the underworld. Mostly written in blank verse the piece, eleven pages long, conjures up an affecting blend of passion, wit, wisdom, and hope. Eight pages in, Gallagher inserts a lovely villanelle. Here’s the heart of it,

You can’t be dead for the rest of my life.

I’m so afraid that I will run out of time

but I don’t have any time to lose.

I cannot wait to see you until I die.

When you aren’t with me my life is a lie

and there is no such thing as the truth.

You can’t be dead for the rest of my life.

The rest of my life is too long a line

and I wouldn’t have anything to prove.

You can’t be dead for the rest of my life.

Poets who breathe in the rarefied air of Elysium, I’m told, change forever. Here’s hoping that Kevin Gallagher remains Kevin Gallagher, at least long enough to write his next book of extraordinary poems.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Joe the Salamander by Timothy Gager


Joe the Salamander by Timothy Gager Golden Antelope Press $19.95

At first glance it may seem that a novel about an autistic boy and his struggles, might not be a ripe subject for fiction. After all, this population is characterized by repetitive behaviors, and non-verbal communication, hardly the stuff for rich dialogue, and action-filled pages. But in Tim Gager’s latest novel, “ Joe the Salamander” the author brings an autistic boy named Joe alive, and follows him from a newly-slapped baby-- to his maturation as a man. This is a survival story in many respects because if Joe can’t adjust to a hostile environment, he would be doomed to be some ward of the state or even worse. Often the sins of our fathers are passed on, and as it happen Joe’s dad Adrian is autistic as well, and doesn’t have enough distance from the disorder to help his son. The women in his life—Millie his mother, and Laurie—a caring nurse, are the stalwarts in Joe’s travails.

Gager, who is a social worker, and who once worked out of a state office in Davis Square, Somerville, brings his knowledge of this disorder to the forefront. We experience the agonizing and grinding progress of Joe; we are able to get a fascinating look at his skewed thought process, and his profound confusion with emotion.

Joe when he was a young kid, often adorned a Superman costume. This is a great conceit Gager brings into play. The use of an all-powerful, flying superhero, transcending the fray—saving the day—breaking the nefarious bubble that surrounds our protagonist  is inspired.

Not to give anything up, but in the end Gager ties things up beautifully.

Gager, to my mind brings the skills of a clinician to fiction, but this is not a dry, clinical work. Having worked in the mental health field at McLean Hospital for 37 years, this book rings powerfully true for me. This book is an accomplished work of fiction--but it should be required reading for aspiring mental health professionals, as well.