The Farther Shore
by Rob Davidson (Eastern Caribbean 1990–92)
Bear Star Press
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991-93)
IF YOU ASK UNDERGRADUATES to name a modern short story writer they like, they might say (if they don’t say “Stephen King” or, forgetting what “modern” means, “Edgar Allan Poe”) “Raymond Carver,” although Carver died in 1988. There’s a good reason why: Carver’s stories about working class men and women in crisis are as elegant as they are spare. To compress so much emotion, so much complex psychology, so much life into such narrow borders is a wonder. So it’s no wonder Carver continues to have devotees — and imitators. If you’re an American short story writer and you haven’t been influenced, at least a little, by Carver, well, poor you.
Most of the stories in Rob Davidson’s new collection The Farther Shore share with Carver’s tales both elegance and compactness. Like Carver’s stories, they feature characters with obvious flaws. And as with Carver’s stories, they resist happy endings (as they should, given their protagonists’ circumstances and shortcomings).
Davidson is obviously aware of Carver’s influence on short fiction in general and his own aesthetic in particular. The opening of his story “Tell Me Where You Are” pays subtle tribute to Carver’s story “Are These Actual Miles?” The stories are both about marriages on the point of collapse. In the Carver story, Leo sends his wife, Toni, out to sell their convertible. As part of the deal, she may have to sell her body. In Davidson’s story, Peterson watches as his wife, Lori, prepares for an evening with her classmate, Michael Munro, with whom she will be giving a presentation (and maybe doing more). Both wives spend the opening of the story primping in front of the mirror for their encounters with men who aren’t their husbands.
“You’re making me nervous,” she says. “I wish you wouldn’t just stand,” she says. “So tell me how I look.”
“You look fine,” he says. “You look great. I’d buy a car from you anytime.”
“But you don’t have money,” she says, peering into the mirror. She pats her hair, frowns. “And your credit’s lousy. You’re nothing,” she says. “Teasing.”
“It’ll go fine, you know that.” She turned to him, one hand planted on a curvy hip. “Tell me how I look.”
Peterson gave her a quick once-over . . .
He said, “You look like a million bucks.”
“Do I look like I want to make a million bucks? Not that an English professor knows about making money.” She smiled facetiously. “Kidding!”
The middles of both stories are also similar, featuring husbands drinking too much (Leo prefers Scotch, Peterson favors bourbon) and worrying about what their wives are doing without them.
It is the endings, however, that differ. Carver, in a rare move, offers his characters the possibility of reconciliation. In Davidson’s story, however, Peterson proves vengeful to the point of violence and violation.
Is Davidson’s bleak ending a comment on Carver’s story? And if so, what might the comment be? That we live in a darker age than Carver’s characters did? That Carver didn’t go far enough in his portraits of how husbands and wives can betray each other?
I suspect it’s nothing so much as this: Davidson found himself creating a character who was far more malicious than Carver’s Leo. He couldn’t write reconciliation into a story that was headed fast in the opposite direction.
A last observation about “Tell Me Where You Are”: One can’t help but wonder if Lori’s date, Michael Munro, might be a sly reference to another modern master of the short story, Alice Munro, who has also been known to write about betrayals in marriage.
Reading a Rob Davidson story is always a pleasure, never more so than (in this reviewer’s opinion, anyway) when his stories are set overseas. In his first collection, Field Observations, I was drawn most to his overseas tales (“A Private Life” and “Barnstorming”). Likewise in The Farther Shore, I found myself marveling at the final story, “Criminals,” which is set on the island of Carriacou. It is a long, intricate story about a father and a son and the foreigner (the story’s narrator) who might be able to save them both from terrible fates. In its restraint and mystery — the narrator tells us only so much about his past to leave us wondering whether he’s a criminal himself or only the victim of suspicion and prejudice — the story recalls another master storyteller, Henry James, with whom Davidson is familiar. (See his scholarly book The Master and the Dean: The Literary Criticism of Henry James and William Dean Howells.)
I haven’t mentioned the other seven stories in The Farther Shore, all of which are worth reading. Davidson does a standout job writing about music in “First Position,” perhaps the sweetest story in the collection. And for additional nuanced portraits of troubled marriages, see “Party Lines.” And . . . well, just read the book.
Reviewer Mark Brazaitis’ latest collection of short fiction, The Incurables, won the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and will be published by the University of Notre Dame Press in the fall. He is also the author of two other short fiction collections, The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, and An American Affair as well as a novel, Steal My Heart, and a book of poems, The Other Language. He is a professor of English and directs the Creative Writing Program at West Virginia University.