Review of Paul Griner’s “Hurry Please I Want to Know”


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Hurry Please I Want to Know (Sarabande Books 2015)
$15.95
168 pages

Review by Jen Corrigan

image001Patient, meticulous readers will be rewarded. Paul Griner’s depiction of America in his short story collection, Hurry Please I Want to Know, winner of the 2016 Kentucky Literary Award, is, at once, delicate, robust, and familiar, bewildering, exotic, and entirely foreign. While readers may feel disoriented and on uneven footing as they pick through the pieces, I think those who continue on will be pleased with the journey they take through this odd and eerie land of Griner’s unrelenting, unapologetic prose.

Griner’s range as a fiction writer is expansive. He experiments with microfiction, longer pieces, first person and third person narration, characters, places, temporalities, magic realism, traditional narratives. Pinpointing a particular thread, image, voice, or style that ties together these varied stories presents a challenge. While this may create a jarring sense of inconsistency for the reader at first, this grab bag of fiction shorts is ultimately satisfying. If a reader doesn’t feel a connection to one story, she stands a likely chance of being profoundly moved, inspired, or taken aback by the next.

The crowning achievement of Griner’s collection is, without a doubt, the gut-wrenching “On Board the SS Irresponsible,” a story that centers on a father taking his three children on a fishing outing one summer afternoon. The piece explores family dynamics around the rift of divorce, the complex and overlapping relationship of hope and sorrow, and the inescapability of paternal guilt. It is a story that first appears quiet and unassuming, a traditional narrative that is sandwiched in the collection between two flash fiction pieces with experimental flavors; however, this piece, which appears about a third of the way into the collection, has a climatic energy that serves to speed the reader’s pace onward. Not only did I find the story intricate and complex on a purely textual level, it climbed down my throat and made a nest inside my belly, resonated inside my bone marrow and rattled the teeth in my gums; it was all so unexpected. Griner took my readerly expectations and turned them up and over. By forcing my focus onto the significance of a boat through the title and the situation of the family around the vessel, I was unable to predict the arrival of a train, the unapologetic catalyst for the final tragedy of the story. I read the last sentence: “For a few seconds more, he wanted to spare her that knowledge” and my soul ached. I put down the book, exhaled, and gave thanks I had not gone my whole life without reading it. Picking up this collection is worth it if only to read just this one story.

Part of what characterizes Griner’s range as a writer is his ability to suture together the comedy and the tragedy that so often appear alongside one another in life. What makes the prose itself especially elegant is the way in which he takes chaos and loss and places them so easily within the controlled structure of his narratives. After drawing the reader into and out of a sense of comfort with “On Board the SS Irresponsible,” his stories begin to thematically fade into subtlety and quietude, but never relief. The crux of “Separate Love” is the beauty and sadness of fleeting relationships, of reaching out and trying to be a bit less alone. An older woman, Gwynn, meets handsome Terry at a grocery store while buying mustard and attends a local dog show in hopes of running into him again. “Loneliness,” Griner writes, “was a terrible gnawing thing that age only intensified.” By means of the carefully selected diction, Gwynn, a nice-looking but otherwise unremarkable woman, is juxtaposed against the painstakingly and purposefully bred dogs that are much more beautiful to Terry. Griner respects but does not coddle his readers; the collection he assembles is one that is deliberately uneven, forcing the reader in and out of vastly different worlds over and over again, but Griner holds faith that his reader will keep up. Most importantly, Griner has an intense compassion for his characters even as he manipulates them into an emotional space of touching, overlapping, and becoming, once again, sorrowful strangers.

Not all of Griner’s stories in Hurry Please I Want to Know affected me as did these I mentioned. Some pieces are so esoterically crafted that they may resonate solely with the author or readers who have an inside look into the narrative. Others I forgot after I closed the book. However, I think this collection, with its diverse nature and broad scope, contains a story for every reader, a story that echoes one’s regretful humanity, a story that will make the reader, at least one time, close her eyes and exhale.

Jen Corrigan is a graduate student and instructor at the University of Northern Iowa, and former editorial intern at the North American Review. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Heather; Apocrypha and Abstractions; The Gambler; Change Seven Magazine; Hypertext Magazine; Cease, Cows; and elsewhere. She serves as a jury member for Mash Stories. Visit her at jencorrigan.wordpress.com.

The Mistake Tea Can Sometimes Make

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by Steven Stam

From a toddler watching a flock of birds attempt to resuscitate a fallen brethren to a father mowing around dandelion islands of lawn weeds out of paternal love, the chapbook The Mistake Tea Can Sometimes Make by Brittany D. Clark from ELJ Publications confronts the clash between the odd and mundane of familial life. In this terse collection, Clark blends the poetic subtlety of flash fiction and the novella form.

Arranged around a series of short vignettes, many of which have been or could be published as singular stories, the narrative follows the life of Julia Carlton, a once-promising child prodigy who steamrolls through life, falls in love during college, and then drops out to marry Eric Gardner. This union lands the couple in Julia’s dead-end home town, Douglass, New Jersey. Douglass rests at the terminal end of a long New Jersey road. There is one way in to and one way out of this town founded by man who was at the end of his rope and before stumbling upon flocks of birds that later fascinate Julia’s young son Benjamin.

Benjamin becomes the success story here, the metaphorical phoenix to rise from Julia’s failures. He is a child that gleans French from language CD’s, detests the faux sophistication of sushi, and finds himself at MIT at age sixteen. Benjamin sits at the center of Julia’s life and the novella’s action, the success story in an otherwise desolate and boring rural municipality. Early on in her marriage, Julia takes to reading tea leaves only to run from the act, afraid of the futureless stasis they reveal. From then on, she fears her life’s inertia, she wants more, and this forces her to focus on Benjamin, a child worthy of her once promising life’s work. She wants to give him everything, and looks toward the future, eliding over the past. Success eludes her, for she fails to stop and read the tea leaves for what they are.

Beyond the familial discourse, the town of Douglass comes to life, first through Julia and the Gardner family’s stories, and then through the town newspaper. A parade of newspaper articles dot the narrative with updates that advance time and space, while cementing the town itself as a character. Libraries, dances, science fairs—each bland event passes time, marking a plateau of small town ennui. The articles alert us to the town’s oddities, the movements of hunters and birds, and in the process letting Clark’s creation live and breathe.

I read this chapbook in a single sitting before turning to the front cover to read it once more with a fond fascination for these, my favorite lines:

“As she lay there, aware of her failures, her exposed body seemed all at once to lurch towards something.”

“He let the rest hang there in the stale air, absorbing all the years of waste and confusion until there was nothing left but a breeze.”

“He would cut the yard around patches of the flowering plant, creating islands Julia would soon run to with her gardening sheers, cutting the few blades to match the freshly cut grassy waters around them.”

“They fluttered as Julia said, ‘like a heart murmur.’ She came up with this metaphor when one of the semi-trucks pushed straight into one of the birds.”

“It wasn’t because their families didn’t have the money; Julia liked these kinds of projects, and Eric liked making Julia happy.”

Steven Stam is a teacher, writer, and runner from Jacksonville, Florida, where he lives with his wife Adriana and two small children. Steven tends to focus on his home of Florida and the oddities therein. In doing so, he writes primarily flash fiction, believing the model fits modern society’s desire for instant gratification. His work can be found in Fiction Southeast, Kudzu House Quarterly, and the Rappahannock Review, among others.

Here is What Happens When a Son Overburdens His Father with Grief

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By Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega

In just five pages of dialogue between a father and a son, author Juan Rulfo returns to the essence of what makes Mexican literature of the twentieth century so refreshing. A rural sensibility, categorized by images of people and their land and the desolate and terse rhythms of a Mexico left in poverty—after promises of revolution and reform gone unfulfilled—are iconic Rulfo. With darkness and light, through silence and sound, through ghost towns shackled by a hot and barren landscape, Rulfo revisits the history of a country that aches with the pain of its people.

I was initially drawn to Juan Rulfo when assigned his most notable work, the novel “Pedro Páramo,” in my Spanish literature class at UC Santa Cruz. I was intrigued by Rulfo’s depictions of sparse yet dramatic Mexican landscapes and was impressed that he was a compatriot of my mother’s home state of Jalisco. I read his short story, No oyes ladrar los perros (No Dogs Bark), during a field study in Guadalajara, Mexico, and visited Sayula, the town where he grew up, when a short time later I went with a production crew to film footage for a documentary about the Mexican economic crisis. These experiences—visiting my mother’s birth country and reading Rulfo while I was visiting native farmers, ranchers, and journalists—informed my interest and passion for this writer whose works I consider enduring classics of literary Mexico.

Rulfo’s No oyes ladrar los perros moved me, this story about a man carrying his wounded adult son, Ignacio, over his shoulder for hours seeking a doctor said to be available in a nearby town. Rulfo has a way of immediately immersing his readers into scenes of tension and urgency. In this story, he constructs an eerie atmosphere, remote and mysterious with a doom-ridden swell that infuses the story as a father dialogues with his son. The father is determined yet somber, chronicling his grief with words that are also terse and spare, as well as intense and blunt. The son he carries remains silent through most of the story.

This father is not proud of his son. The son has become a thorn in his flesh, a sour disappointment, having lived as a thief and murderer. As the father endures the weight of his son’s life upon him, the father’s legs fold beneath him, his feet cramp, his vision clouds. His neck is weighted with the grip of his son’s hands. The father’s condition, caused by the burden of the son he now carries and has carried through the years, mirrors Ignacio’s debilitation.

Surrounded by distant hillsides, illuminated only by the moon, the father becomes more vocal and rancorous over his son’s reckless lifestyle. When the son thirsts, the father recalls him as an infant. Even after consuming his mother’s milk, Ignacio was rabid with a hunger that could only be placated with water. This past foreshadows the present; Ignacio’s parents did everything they could to nurture him, and as an adult he did nothing for them. His unquenchable thirst for more and dissatisfaction for the little his parents were able to provide him, eventually steered him off course. The father rebukes Ignacio, telling him he would surely have killed his mother had she lived to see this day and not died giving birth to another son.

As the father and son draw closer to their destination, the barking of dogs echoes the father’s reluctance and while typically a sound associated with danger, it becomes a beacon of hope, an indicator of the father’s imminent relief and the son’s possible salvation.

Yet, the father admits to the son that his motivation to help is not for his son’s sake, but for the memory of his dead wife, the boy’s mother. He confesses to struggling with the ambivalence he feels about whether to see his son through this dilemma or abandon him to those who had first bludgeoned him. The father curses his son, as the son has hurt even those that he knew personally, including his own godfather. Symbolically, the shadow of father and son in the moonlight unites them, however morally divided they now may be.

No oyes ladrar los perros, set among the landscape of rural life in Mexico, is a masterful depiction of anticipation, conflict, and failed relationships. It is a portrait of agony between a father and son, under the cover of night, illuminated by moonlight, that shows the physical impression a rebellious son leaves on a father and a bitter father’s dubious love and final endeavor to save his son’s life—ominously announced by the barking of dogs.

Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega holds an MFA from Mills College and a BA from UCLA. Her fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills, Other Voices, Santa Clara Review, and Calaca Review. She contributes interviews at The Review Review and her most recent publishing essay is featured in Front Porch Commons: A Project of [CLMP]. 



Malleable Diligence

By Juleigh Howard Hobson

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Diligence. In the wrong hands, the word has about as much appeal as a raw turnip salad without mayo: sure it’s probably good for you…but…

What is it about this particular word that makes a lot of otherwise reasonably well-adjusted writers get out of a nice warm bed at some crazily inhuman hour, forcing a set number of words out of their sleep-deprived skulls, not allowing themselves to miss a nanosecond of scheduled writing time or even contemplate stopping this writerly form of inspired hell? Even if—or maybe especially if—it means battling through fatigue, overcoming worries, enduring depression, dealing with lack of inspiration and disregarding illness, it’s crucial to keep that writerly diligence intact.

No pain equals no gain, right? A lot of writers think so. Why does gain have to hurt so much? What if no pain also equals gain? The Oxford dictionary defines diligence as “careful and persistent work or effort.” Think about that. It says nothing about getting up at 5 AM and writing 2000 words before the coffee maker’s done brewing.

Diligence is a malleable concept, a habit of happy industry, and (for writers) a source of indefatigable wordly creation. It doesn’t require a set schedule for writing. It doesn’t force anyone to create any particular number of words in a particular amount of time. It doesn’t mean that writing must happen despite sickness, heartbreak or complete lack of inspiration. It means that writers who are diligent write with careful and persistent effort. Persistent, not regular effort.

Really, you can give yourself permission to sleep in, to have entire days when you don’t write more than a shopping list. You don’t have worry about it. All you have to do is keep writing. You have to write a lot. You have to write diligently. You just don’t have to write regularly.

Take me, for instance. Some days I write all day. I don’t do mornings, so I never write before breakfast, but I often do right after it. Other days I write after lunch. Or right before bed. Some days I just edit things I wrote before. Some days I write in the late morning, edit in mid-afternoon and spend a few hours submitting work in the dark midnight of the writer’s day. I am never without a project; I have never missed a deadline, and I rarely suffer from blocks, lack of vision or no inspiration. I write in hiccups and in streaks. In waves and sudden whirls, with great malleable diligence and ease. The idea of a whole body of work, a sum total of creation, is what we as writers should cling to. That’s what creates true diligence, and what makes diligence such a pleasant concept to hold. With it in mind, there is no daily hand wringing over writing goals unmet, no guilt over spending an entire evening writing like a maniac, no feeling bad, no self-recrimination: there is only writing, writing as a natural presence in our lives. Once writing is natural, not forced, writing itself becomes able to sway and bend around all the fits and starts, the odds and ends, the bits and pieces that make up a writer’s world. Sure, there will be off days. But there will also be on days. Balancing between them is the writer, staying dedicated. Swaying and bending, tucking and curling as the words come and works are inevitably created. With happiness. With grace. With malleable diligence.

 

Juleigh Howard-Hobson writes fiction, formalist poetry and non-fiction essays, purposely blunting the modern ‘brandable’ concept of artistic obligation to any single form or movement. Winner of the ANZAC Day Award for Poetry, named a Million Writers Award “Notable Story” writer, and nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, she has appeared in such venues as The Lyric, Aesthetica, First Line, KeyHole, Prime Number, Poemeleon, The Alabama Literary Review, Mezzo Cammin, Enchanted Conversation, History is Dead (Permuted Press), Mandragora (Scarlett Imprint), The Best of the Barefoot Muse (Barefoot Pub), Poem, Revised (Marion Street Press), and Caduceus: The Poets at Art Place Vol 8 (Yale University).