I’ve read that book titles should be ironic so as to provoke a sense of mystery, or perhaps just to turn the reader in the opposite direction of moral authority. Gerald Karey promotes the ironic in the first section of essays in his third volume, Meanderings. The subtitle seems to downplay expectations (Inventions, Fripperies, Bits, & Bobs), or call up the image of an English Squire. The irony here might be the author’s reluctance to take himself seriously, though he’s dedicated the volume to journalists killed in action, which portends a more serious look at the world. But remember we’re dealing here with irony.
The first section “Sirens,” in fact, starts with a look back at the atomic bomb scare of many of our childhoods in the survival drill of the dreaded 50’s and 60’s. These first three essays titled respectively: Duck and Cover, Shelter and Blast Zones do not signal a leisurely walk through the countryside.
In fact, this slim volume returns us to the shadow of a time of terror foisted off on children who are now the very elders confronting the sudden reality of Russian cyber warfare and North Korean atomic bombs. That’s progress. It’s not just the bomb we hide from today, but the prospect of a truth-less slog by way of the dreary Russian state taking over an unwary, naive democratic stronghold. Possibly the daylight robbery of our passion, freedom and ideals. Plus, of course, the North Korean demigod in the wings. The more things change…well, we also begin with a sly a little interview of the author, by the author. That should lighten things up.
What’s matchless about “meandering,” is the impossibility of falling off the track. We soon pass onto the next section which is less fortified — a section about growing up in Brooklyn and New York. The idol turns into a childhood becoming aware; the section depicts a stroll in New York Lost and Found and contains childhood memories, interesting ticks of the NY beat and other things around town.
In Silver Spring Vignettes and the Walk About sections, Karey points to our daily life with examples from his leisure — shopping, walking, looking out the window. He maintains a certain whimsical quality, but with a few observations here and there that convey the subtext of his earlier comments. Talking to a former egg farmer in a Maryland supermarket, discussing all manner of eggs, the narrator relates to the farmer how he prefers his “hard-boiled eggs” culled from tough chickens, who lay their eggs in dark rooms.
There’s also a section of “Short Stories,” all short, and entertaining, some insightful, with the drollness of a bemused narrator. To wit: the grouchy character in his seventies, defying fear of death and the younger wife who left him. He copes by leaving the dishes in the sink, amazed how the ants carry off bits of food; another story depicts a concentration camp; still further along in different locations, we meet death.
There is also a section of Social Commentary which ends with a little essay on a “Damp Drizzly October of the Soul” which aims to beat the wail of Melville’s’ Ishmael by a mere month. All in all, it seems to me, commentaries reflect back upon us, spreading our secrets in only a mild disguise. In this era of widespread education, leisure, and computers, meandering is relatively easy. Gerald Karey treats us to a special look from a unique vantage point with few structures. There is a freedom in this approach that allows not just the material but the attitude to assure freedom of expression, too.
The wry undertone, serves him well, as we learn about the author’s life from what he chooses to tell us of his observations. The revelations come in a sort of bumpy, humorous way — not a list of who I am, but a reflection on where I go, what I do and what I see. A neat trick, which he pulls off successfully most of the time. If the book does not return completely to irony, you are nevertheless aware of a subtle journey; or, perhaps we may gain an understanding of the “fripperies” of death. Near the end, you may begin to realize, too, oh, this is Gerald Karey, I might think I have known him before. Now, I know him better.
Will Siegel (Ethiopia 1962–64) is a fiction writer living in Boston. Several of his stories have appeared in the PCWW’s Short Stories by Peace Corps Writers blog. His novel, Kennedy in the Land of the Dead, which begins in Ethiopia on the day Kennedy was shot and ends in San Francisco on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, will be published by Peace Corps Writers this spring.