Reviewer Mark Brazaitis is the author of three books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and Steal My Heart, a novel that won the Maria Thomas Fiction Award given by Peace Corps Writers. His latest book is The Other Language: Poems, winner of the 2008 ABZ Poetry Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, The Sun, Witness, Notre Dame Review, Confrontation, and elsewhere.
Cold Snap: Bulgaria Stories
by Cynthia Morrison Phoel (Bulgaria 1994–96)
Southern Methodist University Press
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)
Good fiction works from the inside out. Yes, The Sun Also Rises is a novel about post-World War I Paris, with a little Spanish bullfighting thrown in, but it’s essentially and vividly the story of a man (Jake Barnes) who loves a woman (Lady Brett Ashley) who will never be his. It’s the story of his heart’s anguish and his soul’s quest for tranquility. (Fishing helps.) It’s the story of unrequited love and all its attendant miseries and jealousies, as well as its rare moments of levity. (Alcohol helps — temporarily, anyway.)
Cynthia Morrison Phoel’s delightful first collection of stories, Cold Snap: Bulgaria Stories, is certainly about Bulgaria. Within the book we have Bulgarian geography, principally the town of Old Mountain. We have Bulgarian words (Molya ti si! Vsichko e nared!). We have Bulgarian dishes and a sprinkling of Bulgarian history.
But reading the stories, one doesn’t think first of Bulgaria. One thinks: When will the heat come on?
The annual turning on of the heat in Old Mountain is the narrative pivot in the book’s final story, the novella-length title piece, around which revolve the continuing stories of half a dozen characters introduced in the previous five stories. Temperatures must be below freezing for four consecutive days before the heat is turned on, and so early winter becomes an endurance test, featuring sweaters and space heaters and lots of shivering. But the story isn’t only about the literal cold. It’s an endearing ensemble piece about the coolness and warmth of the characters we’ve come to know and like and how they feel toward each other and themselves.
The motif of warm and cold is present throughout the collection. In the opening story, “A Good Boy,” we see a marriage go cold when a husband trades his labor for a satellite dish. His television immediately becomes the household’s dominant figure, alienating his wife and confusing his son. (With satellite TV comes, among other kinds of entertainment, pornography — not exactly the ideal form of sex education.)
In “Galia,” the title character is, for a long time, a bemused witness to her own life. Everything is provided for her — from grades in school to a husband. But on her wedding night, she is faced with an opportunity to act on her own behalf — and with someone who isn’t her husband. Good storytelling involves putting characters in situations in which they face meaningful choices, and Phoel skillfully brings Galia to a crisis point. She does the same with Galia in the concluding story, and this doesn’t seem like a trick already performed. but like a portrait expanded and made more vivid.
If Lorrie Moore, the author of the seminal short story collection Birds of America and several other funny and unsettling works, had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria, she might have written “Never Trust a Man Who.” In this story, Phoel hilariously shows what an English class in a foreign country can do with a hodgepodge of colloquialisms, a Halloween essential, and a touch of British slang (italics hers):
“I’m not feeling well today.”
“You’re looking a bit green around the gills.”
“Well, I just puked in the trash can.”
“You don’t say. Did you catch that nasty bug that’s going ’round?”
“No, I ate a jack-o-lantern.”
As with Moore’s stories, there’s something stirring beneath the funny surface. In this case, it’s the protagonist’s first-hand understanding of the complexity of love.
It’s natural to want to compare Phoel’s writing to Chekhov’s, and not only because of the relative closeness of Bulgaria to Russia (they’re on the same side of the world, anyway, three countries apart) or because one of Phoel’s minor characters is named Boris or because one of her star-studded blurb-writers did (”Cynthia Phoel’s collection has a Chekhovian feel…” says Lee Martin). No, it’s because there is a similarity in the sound and subtlety of the writing. If you sleep through one of Cold Snap’s sentences, you’re liable to miss a nuanced turn in a character’s psychology. With Phoel’s work, as with Chekhov’s, it pays to pay attention.
A good work of fiction is both universal and particular. And so it’s always about the heart in conflict with itself (to quote one of Hemingway’s contemporaries) and always about the place where it’s set. Phoel’s characters have compellingly conflicted hearts, and her Bulgaria is memorable for its (turned on, at last!) radiators — and much more.