by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)
University of Notre Dame Press
Reviewed by Susi Wyss (Central African Republic 1990-92)
As a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic in the early 1990s, I once accidentally ingested a triple dose of Fasigyn to treat a case of giardia. That night, my mind slipped into an alternate world in which I hallucinated that rats were coming through my window and trying to crawl under my mosquito net. That experience instilled in me an enduring empathy for people struggling with mental illness, and taught me just how thin the membrane is that separates sanity from madness.
In Mark Brazaitis’ fifth book, a deep and introspective collection of stories called The Incurables, this membrane seems especially thin and permeable, and his varied cast of characters manifests symptoms of varying degrees of madness. A school coach turns into a murderer to protect a woman he loves. An out-of-work, impotent porn star with a severe case of herpes ends up in a psych ward after he tries to commit suicide. The owner of a car wash murders his wife and child to protect them from an Armageddon he has seen coming in his dreams. The collection is bookended by stories of successful and unsuccessful attempts at suicide.
Some of the most provocative stories in the collection, however, feature characters who, instead of being suicidal or committed to institutions, stand on the cusp of madness. In “The Bridge,” a town’s new sheriff, who is doing everything he can to stop an epidemic of jumpers from the town’s bridge, nonetheless considers joining them. The narrator of “The Boy behind the Tree,” wonders if his mind conjured up a living, breathing boy who joined his golf games with his father. And in one of my favorite stories in the collection, “A Map of the Forbidden,” a married man who has always resisted replicating his father’s philandering ways finds himself, after his father’s funeral, unable to heed his reasonable self and stop himself from embarking on an affair. It is a testament to Brazaitis’ skill that he gets us to feel Tim’s helplessness as he tries to resist his attraction to Anna:
Her hair was still dangling in the salt-and-pepper shakers. He reached to hold the ends in his fingertips. His gesture felt as natural and instinctive as exposing his palms to catch raindrops, yet he looked at his hand as if it had declared independence from the rest of his body.
But the ten stories in The Incurables are not just linked thematically by varying shades of madness. Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, they are also linked by a town in Ohio-in this case, the town of Sherman-where all the characters live. In case the reader has missed the parallel, Brazaitis gives an allegorical wink when the protagonist in “The Boy behind the Tree” confesses to reading Sherwood Anderson. Like Anderson, Brazaitis uses plain-spoken prose and focuses on the psychological insights of his characters. He also injects a welcome sense of dry humor that lightens some of the heavy material.
In addition to being linked by theme and setting, the stories are also loosely linked by its characters, as the main characters of some of the stories make cameo appearances in others. Even careful readers may miss some of the connections. We learn of a man’s affair in one story, but only later is it mentioned in passing, in a story about another character, that his wife was having an affair, too. And we wonder, but never find out for sure, if the dark-haired Jack remembered in one story grows up to be the dark-haired nurse of the same name in the title story.
These subtle connections serve to make the cast of characters feel smaller and more intertwined than it may appear at first read. As a result, we as readers feel all the more connected to the residents of Sherman as they struggle to overcome the loneliness and isolation that permeates their town. Yes, they may be incurable, but in some ways aren’t we all?
Susi Wyss is the author of The Civilized World, a novel in stories set across Africa that received the 2011 Maria Thomas Fiction Award from Peace Corps Writers and was named a “Book to Pick Up Now” by O, the Oprah Magazine. Visit her online at: www.susiwyss.com.