Brevité: A Collection of Short Fiction
Stephen Mustoe (Kenya 1983–84)
Peace Corps Writers
Reviewed by Jane Albritton (India 1967–69)
MEMORY IS THE CORNERSTONE of Stephen Mustoe’s first collection of short fiction: Brevité. Sometimes the memories seem like they rightly belong to the author, sometimes not. But even when the source remains unclear, the quality of remembrance remains present.
As with any collection of short fiction, a reader is likely to come away from the experience with favorites. I have. Actually, I have two favorite sets of stories that stand out from the others: a pair featuring the irrepressible Uncle Woody, and a quartet of stories that draw on Mustoe’s experiences in Africa, both as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya and on later return visits.
In “Dogfish Blues” and “Blind Faith,” Mustoe introduces Woody, a veteran Navy flier who knew how to get the boy who calls him “Uncle Woody” in worlds of trouble while inviting him into his worlds of adventure. Each of these stories takes a situation that could have ended catastrophically and turns it into a comic escapade that belongs to the tradition of coming of age reflections. Stevie, the narrator, gives the tales an immediacy and warmth. Portraying a character like Woody as bigger than life without slipping into caricature is not easy. But Mustoe does it well and left me wishing the collection contained longer versions of these stories or just more of them.
The second set of stories possesses a depth of detail that comes from intense experience tumbled and reshaped by memory. “Merrick of Batua” (the longest and perhaps most satisfying story in the collection), “Vision,” “Parallel Lives,” and “Theft” (the final prose piece) together touch on the travails, triumphs, and culture clashes that mark most Peace Corps Volunteers’ experiences. Of the four, “Parallel Lives” has a hallucinogenic quality about it that surely only those who have contracted malaria can fully comprehend. But even if the thread of the story is tricky to follow, what arises from it, even for those without direct malarial experience, is that the fevered recesses of the unconscious are confusing, dark, and full of contradiction.
Of the three other stories, the humorous “Merrick of Batua” and the wonderful “Vision” possess no mysterious subtext. By contrast, “Theft” might just discomfit a reader who has never lived inside a culture that adheres comfortably to values that clash with North American sensibilities. We like to believe that justice will prevail, that the innocent will be vindicated, and the guilty will be punished. When our sense of social justice in disarray plays out as normal in an African village, an American reader understands the narrator’s anger and his need to flee rather than accept the advice of Father O’Connell, keeper of the local mission. “It’s not your shauri,” not your issue. Leave it alone.
In these times when highly nuanced cultural practices get reduced to 140 characters in a tweet, a story like “Theft” is good to chew on and maybe even digest. While it is true that Mustoe’s use of Bantu and Swahili words in the story remind readers that the events take place in a Kenyan village, it is worth wondering if privilege is everywhere privilege? Does justice belong only to those who can afford it?
A first book, particularly a first collection of short fiction or poetry, will inevitably wobble in spots. The narrative voice in “Encounter,” a haunting story, sounds like the male voice in the other stories, but we are told that a woman encountered the deer on the highway. “Jack” needs a lot more detail to make it clear if the story concerns plane crashes caused by birds sucked into jet engines or covert activities of the CIA. Fortunately, a remedy for wobble exists: write another book. Uncle Woody needs more print.
Reviewer Jane Albritton edited Even the Smallest Crab Has Teeth: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories, Vol 4: Asia and the Pacific, and was managing editor of the four-volume collection 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories.
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