Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Playing Detailed Narrative Against Linguistic Restraint: Michael Gills’ The House Across from the Deaf School

In his introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2016, editor Junot Diaz praises the form of the short story for mimicking the fleeting nature of life. He says, “To me this form captures better than any other what it is to be human—the brevity of our moments, the cruel irrevocability when those times places and people we hold the most dear slip through our fingers.” For Diaz, a “novel’s bulk is a respite from life’s implacable uncertainty,” but, he says, short stories do not offer the same respite because they so closely mirror our own transience—they are brief, fragmentary, abrupt.

Michael Gills’ collection of short stories, The House Across from the Deaf School (Texas Review Press, 2016), exemplifies the dramatic power that short fiction gives its readers: the short illuminated moments in a character’s life, the intensity of images around a single space and time, the condensed emotional inheritance of one conversation or a solitary incident. Gills knows how to play detailed narrative against linguistic restraint and the result is immersion in a world of scatter-shot characters, places, and images that cohere as tales that are sometimes raucous and sometimes cruel; but, most often, his stories are moving and sympathetic in their psychological and emotional impact.

Although the stories are connected through their protagonist, Joey Harvell, each stands on its own as a separate piece. Joey Harvell, like Gills himself, grows up in Arkansas and becomes the first in his family to attend college. He eventually earns a Ph.D and lands in Utah as a professor.

The stories juxtapose the deprivations and hardships of a boyhood in Arkansas with the abundance of an economically secure adulthood when comfortable living and world travel become possible, but they never assume that the comparisons are value-based—emotional angst and mental pain are just as pervasive in the relative stability of Joey’s adulthood as in his youth. The best of these stories lean into pain, cruelty, fear, and affliction of all kinds, and by residing for a time in those dark places, Gills extends empathy and understanding to his characters, and in turn, to his reader.
“Welcome to the Authentic Trail of Tears” is the second story in the collection, but seems central to me as an example of Gill’s ability to ground the whirling chaos of Joey’s life in an image that is so sharp, complex, and beautiful that it briefly brings order to his messy upbringing. Here, Joey is staying with a Baptist family while his mother is in the hospital. What ails his mother is unclear but seems connected to the violence of O.W., Joey’s stepdad. The stifling piety of the Baptist family is too much for Joey, and after a week with the Baptists he takes a Cherokee boy, Rocky Mayfield, up on his offer to move in with Rocky’s family for the month of October.

The Mayfields live beneath a giant apple tree in a house with “a half-dozen shingle colors, leftover from the construction sites,” and they get all their water from the glorious, living waters of “Matrimony Springs.” Though the Mayfields are poor, they are generous and they readily invite Joey into their family circle where he takes part in their yearly ritual of killing the family hog.

The brilliance of the hog-killing scene resides in the way Gills weaves the sentimental feelings one normally feels for a family pet with the pragmatic need for the pet to provide food. The joy that the food brings, and the irony that killing a beloved animal is the apex of pleasure for the Mayfield family, is both hilarious and macabre.

First the hog, named General George Custer, is described as having dog-like qualities. The Mayfield boys train him to “sit up on his haunches and beg, fetch a stick and roll over on command. He could toss the football up and snatch it with his snout.” All of this is explained as the tools to kill and harvest his flesh are prepared, “a silver-handled knife, a hacksaw and a pair of wire-pliers … a gleaming straight razor … a chopping axe,” a rope and pulley with a “gleaming hook” and, most importantly, a .22 rifle. While the family prepares, Joey scratches the general between the ears with a stick—mystified by the affection the Mayfields have for the General and the giddy excitement with which they look forward to their feast.

Gills brings conflicting emotions into the hog-killing scene and then, to add another layer of complexity to the marriage of devotion and betrayal, he describes a boxing match between Joey and Rocky and then between the oldest Mayfield boy and his father. The violence of killing the hog and of the familial boxing matches echo the violence inflicted by O.W. on Joey and his mother, but the ritual-like aspects of the violence in the Mayfield family brings the family together, rather than driving them apart. This story highlights the raw but still essential qualities of pain, confusion, and collision in family relationships, and the theme resonates throughout the whole collection.

It is the vivid, unflinching way that Gills treats the confusion and misunderstanding and trouble in family relationships that makes these stories memorable. There is trouble between Joey and his thirteen-year-old daughter, heartbreak between Joey and his wife, suffering in the love between Grandmother and grandson, between stepdad and stepson, and between husband and wife. Gills deals with the familial heartaches honestly without devolving into the sentimentally morbid or manipulative. He trains a cold eye on the lives of his characters but always makes room for empathy and tenderness.

In “Last Words on Lonoke,” Joey’s beloved mustang dies while suspended from an oak tree where Joey strung him up in a last-ditch effort to keep him alive. The gruesome details of Joey, aged thirteen, having to dig a grave and then break the legs of his bloated horse with a sledge hammer to fit him in the hole are both horrifically funny and gut-wrenching. Joey doesn’t know what the future holds for him—he is afraid of his own violent tendencies—but, as the episode of burying his horse illustrates, Joey is a kid whose tenacity and determination will serve him well and make it possible to build a life out of the fragments of his past.

In a sense, these stories are fragments of a whole life, but each fragment, in its brevity and abruptness, burns with the intensity of the forest fire that Joey and his family race to escape in the story “Earth’s Last Night.” Here, Joey is a grown man, married and with a four-year-old daughter, and his mother has just passed away. They go to Flaming Gorge for a peaceful and restorative weekend in the mountains and nearly lose their lives in the fire that seems to come out of nowhere. The experience is terrifying and beautiful and illuminating and it becomes a narrative that Joey tells the rest of his life and that he sees as an “heirloom for [his] people.” Joey knows the power in narrative, the way life’s immensity begs to be formed into a comprehensible tale with meaning and hope.

But storytelling is a messy business. Not every tale can be neatly packaged and tied-up with a bow. As Junot Diaz says, short stories don’t save us from “life’s implacable uncertainty,” but they can offer glimpses of understanding into the fleeting images that come out of the uncertainty. Real storytelling requires grappling with bitterness and layers of incongruities and plenty of remorse and anguish. Gills’ stories tackle the guilt and regret inherent in human relationships, the ugliness of selfishness and cruelty, the loneliness and misunderstanding that even sincere love can engender, and he turns it all into shining narratives with beautifully flawed characters and unforgettable places.

an excerpt from “Last Words on Lonoke,” from The House Across from the Deaf School:

O.W.’d bought me a .30-ought six the Christmas I turned thirteen, along with a box of silver tips, each brassy cartridge the length of my middle finger.  “Don’t point at anything you don’t want to kill,” he said, then drove off to West Memphis for a load of slaughter hens headed east.  That was pretty much it for my gun safety lessons.  By January, when the cold blew down from Canada and my skinny mustang, Shawnee, had foundered, I could hit a tin corn can at seventy-five yards and had bagged a flame-red fox nosing across the gravel pit. All winter, the skinned hide shone, tacked up on the well-house.  Before Shawnee got too bad, I rode him bareback out to the middle of the frozen pond–little cracks zinging off in every direction.  Ten feet tall on horseback, I headshot one of the Buffalo Carp that swam like shadows in the deeps nearest the levee.  By Arkansas spring time, when gold sun flared down through the new-leafed trees in our back pasture, within view of the huge oak where we’d slung Shawnee up so he wouldn’t lay down and die, I unloaded on one of the cargo planes that was always circling from the base over in J-ville, and the son-of-a-bitch crashed.  The woods beyond the railroad track blazed.  It looked for all the world like God and Jesus had reached down and slapped the shit out of the countryside, then set it afire just to make sure we all got the point.  No one was killed–they found the ejected pilot in a Butlerville cow pasture–and turns out that it’s physically impossible to knock an Air Force Cargo plane out of the sky with a deer gun.  But for a long time, I pictured the burning fuselage and thought this is me.  This is who I am now.

The House Across from the Deaf School
Michael Gills
Texas Review Press
144 pp.

Categories: Book Reviews | Literary Arts

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