stories by Jerry Gabriel
Queen’s Ferry Press
2015, 278 pages
Jerry Gabriel’s first collection, Drowned Boy, was Sarabande Book’s Mary McCarthy Prize in Fiction in 2010, and his second collection, The Let Go, from Queens Ferry Press, continues in the vein of intriguing characters and bleak, mid-Western landscapes. The seven long stories are set in and around Columbus, Ohio, and lack quotation marks, creating distance a dreamy quality that often is juxtaposed against first-person narration.
The first story, “The Visitors,” is a grim tale of illegal trapping and sheltering fugitives from justice in 1972. We see everything through the eyes of a girl named Camille, as though watching a documentary: “Years later she pieced all of this back together the way you might a dream after waking with just a shard in your mind.” Camille’s father lost a brother in Vietnam, and his ongoing grief somehow explains his antisocial behavior. When one of the “visitors” stays too long, tension mounts. A scene in the woods features guns, hypothermia, and a hot-wired truck.
“Above the Factory,” by contrast, is light comedy. Nicholas and Sharon, a young professional couple, relocate from the desert West to the idyllic hamlet of Annecy, Ohio, a 45-minute drive from the city. He is an architect and she does pottery. They would like to have a child. They buy a house on a weekend visit. Only after moving in do they discover that the house has a factory in the basement. As in a story by Gogol, the absurd plot unfolds in detail: “Oh, yes, there are always details, Hampton said profoundly. With this he turned and boarded a small electric forklift, and took off with a load of medium-sized cardboard boxes, Korean or Chinese characters across them, a small beeping noise marking his path.”
“Dishonor” takes us in another direction—the alcohol abuse, deep rage, and physical violence of Specialist Phillip Dante. Shortly after Operation Desert Storm, flown back to Saudi Arabia, the drunken Phillip accosts a Saudi woman in the street. Before you can say “international incident,” the army flies Phillip to Fort Bragg and cuts a deal. “If he signed, he could walk, discharged. Other Than Honorable.” He signs, drives north to Ohio, gets a job as a bar bouncer, nearly kills an errant customer, and looks up a former girlfriend named Tara, now married. Tara tells him to get help.
In each of the next three stories, a young man comes of age. Each has issues with his father, and each is troubled. Chris Conner, age fourteen, is the narrator of “We’re in Danger, All of Us.” A talented basketball player, recruited by a sleazy coach for a team to tour Romania, Chris is a poor student but shrewd. His father is a nutcase, kicked out of the house by his mother, while his twin sisters Teri and Keri, who talk in a private language, call in a bomb threat and wreck the family car. There is some murky stuff about Communist spies—the story seems to happen 20 or 30 years ago—a rich kid who goads Chris into fighting.
Martin in “Long Story, No Map” is a confused twenty-something who lost his job in the 2008 recession. “He’s become part of the Great Let Go.” He hangs out with college boys in Columbus and sleeps with a graduate student in biology, until she kicks him out. An old man named Choi, who escaped years ago from North Korea, hires Martin to help replace the roof of his apartment house. A former epidemiologist, Choi becomes a mentor. His fall from the roof is both tragic and funny: “No, Choi agreed. Not dead yet.”
Marcus is another confused young man in “Panic.” He suffers from panic attacks. He tutors a married Korean woman in English and falls in love with her, while his older sister Jill throws out her cheating, workaholic husband. Meanwhile Marcus’s drug-addicted, thieving roommate gets his act together and departs to enter law school. The comedy here is dark, literally so at the end: “I made my way through the apartment, feeling almost giddy at the thought that I didn’t need the light.”
“The Defense”is the last story and the finest of this collection, partly because the characters face serious problems: prostate cancer, and the defense of a PhD thesis. Three are middle-aged, two are young men (again), and all are related. It’s a tight family group with a web of emotions, worthy of an Italian opera. Maggie passes her defense, and Turner narrowly avoids a fight with the research star of her department, who fathered her son. By cellphone, Turner’s son tells him to go outside and look at the constellation Sagittarius. He does, and as he is “trying to make out the figure in the sky for the first time in his life,” Gabriel, who says he is interested in “the feedback loop between place and identity,” has created a collection of quiet compassion and deep satisfaction.