stories by C. B. Anderson
C & R Press
We ask a great deal of fiction, we Americans in the twenty-first century. We want our fiction to be realistic, yet we also like smart dialogue and a narrative arc, neither of which occur in real life. We love a good story, yet we demand believable characters, who tend to stray from the plot line. We want all the parts to meld in a seamless rush to an inevitable denouement, yet we relish a surprise at the end.
C.B. Anderson, I am pleased to report, delivers the complete package. How on earth does she manage it? Her book River Talk contains seventeen stories of varied length and focus, all set in rural Maine where she grew up, specifically the Androscoggin River valley. This is her first story collection, but it must be culled from many years and many more stories. The mastery of style shown here can only come from experience.
The author biography is shorn of dates. It says that Anderson “graduated from Cornell University with a degree in mathematics and has been moving leftward ever since—from computer programming to proposal writing to journalism to fiction.” It says that she is a “winner of numerous prizes.” Her stories have been published in the best literary magazines in America, and seven in this book are “fiction contest winners,” as noted in the front.
In a television interview on WCSH-WLBZ on July 31, 2014 to mark the book’s publication, a video of which is posted online, Anderson appears to be in middle age. She notes her earlier career as an actuary in New York City. She then earned a journalism degree from Boston University, and she wrote for the Christian Science Monitor, Yankee and Down East. “My journalism is wonderfully energizing to the fiction,” she says, and as an example she cites the influx of Somali refugees in Lewiston, Maine. This is the source of the story “Two Falls,” which brims with closely observed details—of the Somalis, the native Mainers, the textile mill, and the winter weather. Placed last in the collection, with the finely drawn character of Amina Abukar, the story is a tour de force.
In the television spot, however, Anderson says: “I’m not the sort of writer who channels characters. Characters aren’t talking to me and pouring onto the page.” No? Maybe the author is unaware of her own strength. Each story features a heroine or hero, a consistent point of view, and a certain amount of interior commentary on the action. Dialog is sparing, as though Anderson did not quite trust her dramatic powers, but it sometimes blossoms into a fully-realized scene. The proof lies in the range of lifelike characters, from the young mother in “China Falls,” to the retired brothers in “Taken,” to the fiftyish couple in “Tourmaline,” to the thin girl in “Baker’s Helper” . . . and we’re only up to page 45.
The subject matter is as varied as the characters. Mathematics, or at least Euclidian logic, becomes lucid in “The Geometry of Words,” in which a college student resists the sexual advances of her teacher. Taxidermy shows up in “Taken,” where it pairs with deer hunting and allows a play on words, and again in “Everything,” where the disturbing image of pulling a whole skin from a carcass comes back to haunt the hero. “Skipjack” goes to an ocean beach and the carnival rides of Tobago Park. “In the Ice” deals with veterans of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, their injuries in body and mind, and reverberations of these in family life.
We see rivers, their rocks and currents, the ice that forms on them, the fish and mosquitos that breed in them, and the people that swim in them and sun themselves on the bank. The pungent haze of paper mills appears in the first story “China Falls,” and it seems to hang over the rest. In “River Talk,” a young woman tells her fiancé how she taught a child to swim in the river.
There is plenty of cooking, eating and drinking, usually to good dramatic effect, as when the capable but clueless narrator of “Taken” prepares a special dinner for Et, the woman who lives with him. As butter burns in the skillet and scallops spoil on the counter, he sees that Et has decamped to live with his handsome slob of a brother. “Life plays out while you’re not watching. It really does.”
An autistic boy named Cory is at the center of “China Falls,” in the sense that he causes the breakup of a marriage, then causes an accident that sends him to the hospital. But the story is not about autism. It is about a family, including the boy’s sister Amanda, and the churlish ex-husband Greg. At the same time, the story is about Jeanine, the thirty-four year old mother, who meets a sympathetic male nurse named Lee, first at the bar where she works and then at the hospital. As in “River Talk,” a lot goes on in twenty pages, maybe too much.
Several times, Anderson creates a sense of dread, as though an accident is about to happen, or a bout of domestic violence. In “Tourmaline,” when the characters scrabble in an old mine, a collapse seems likely. I feared that one of the PTSD veterans of “In the Ice” would snap, or that the goaded father Reed in “Skipjack” would lash out. In “Tourmaline,” instead of confronting his abusive father, Phip simply leaves—and his mother hops in his pickup truck.
“Mavak Tov” is set in a religious commune called Chavurat Messiah that practices plural marriage, intense prayer sessions, and group meals. The heroine is Ranya, the young mother of a brain-damaged girl, Gavriella. Isaac, the group’s leader and Ranya’s husband, is exploiting Gavriella as a faith-healing saint, to the point that Ranya tries to escape with her by boat. Will they drown in the river? Judith, Isaac’s first wife, effects a reconciliation, as touching as it is unexpected.