Reviewed by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965-67)
Off to the Next Wherever aptly describes the scope and action of this new collection of short stories by John Michael Flynn. His characters are certainly on the move — wherever and everywhere — many of them with a stronger taste of a past than a hope for the future. In the best stories they find satisfaction, if not happiness or resolution. And they inhabit the world we live in, the one world. Flynn protagonists are male, female, gay and straight; as young as 12, old enough to worry about being old, and everybody in between. Flynn also deftly moves the reader through time and space — evoking the life of a newsboy in the 1940s, a druggie in the 60s, Reagan sloganeering, “Peace Through Strength,” in the 80s — right up to Occupy Wall Street.
Flynn knows the people who populate his stories, the streets they walk and offers a rare breadth of experience — around the world and at home.
The longest story in the collection, “A Question for the Devil’s Rope,” narrated by a Hmong-American artist on a road trip with her boyfriend, opens with her question, “Is Freedom Possible.” As they drive west from Virginia, heading for Taos, the question looms at every stop, a bit like a mirage that pulls you relentlessly forward towards a place you can never reach — and the question is still hanging out there at the end. Many of the stories are like this — a movement with uncertain resolution — a lot like life, which may be the point of Off to the Next Wherever.
The narrator in “Mister Transparent” captures the mood of many of the stories, when he says, regarding his brother who was miserable following a divorce, “I assured him I held the cure for dissatisfaction. It was indifference.” This cynicism, this posture of indifference, permeates many of these stories of working men and women — in a factory, a commercial fishing boat, at a drafting table. Flynn expertly captures the gritty details of daily life.
The author has obviously moved around quite a bit himself and offers the reader a wide variety of voices and points of view. He evokes the feel of Hamburg, of being lost in Moldova and riding the trackless trolley in the Boston suburbs. He also knows how to harvest tobacco, what it feels like to be HIV positive or to be an ex-con. And he surprises. In “All We Have,” the story of the homecoming of a war zone veteran, the vet is female, not male, and the daughter of a Hispanic father and an Anglo mother — not that he makes a point of that — it’s just who they are. Part of the pleasure of his collection is the authority with which he takes us around the world and deep into the human heart of people we haven’t met, people just like us — whoever we are.
Many of the stories have a strong feel of memoir and a few characters appear in more than one story — which isn’t a drawback. Flynn makes good use of that familiarity. “Apron and Shawl and Housedress” gives a poignant sense of the deprivations of life in Bălți where the narrator has been, he thinks, a burden; he is ill, feverish, and has been sleeping in his clothes for three weeks, in the home of Elena, his Moldovan host. His long, uncomfortable confinement enables him to witness the challenges and deprivations of life in Moldova and to experience life through the eyes of Elena, a university professor with a remarkable breadth of knowledge of English literature. He recognizes the naiveté of his aspiration to change life in Bălți; it is he who is changed, not his Moldovan family, an experience familiar to many of us lucky enough to have been Peace Corps Volunteers.
Reviewer Kathleen Coskran is a writer and teacher whose work has appeared in several anthologies, and her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous awards, fellowships and residencies including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bush Artist’s Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She is currently writing flash fiction on her blog called Pocket Stories.