Reviewed by Bill Preston (Thailand 1977-80)
“Bad men,” wrote novelist and short story writer Jean McGarry, “make for more interesting stories.” I imagine that Clifford Garstang would be inclined to agree. You could certainly make that case for many of the male characters in his new collection, House of the Ancients & Other Stories. Such a sentiment crossed my mind more than once as I read through this strange and often disturbing collection. But hold on. What, exactly, do we mean by bad? And just who, really, is qualified to pass such judgment? Those who live in glass houses, as the saying goes, should not be quick to throw stones. Are we not, as human beings, all flawed?
The twenty-three stories in House of the Ancients reflect, I surmise, aspects of Clifford Garstang’s remarkable background, experience, and far-flung travels—filtered, in varying degrees, through his creative imagination. The stories are organized in four parts. The first two sections contain a series of linked tales with mostly international settings; several stories are quite short, sometimes one page or less. The latter two sections are comprised of longer stories set in Virginia and the Midwest. Together, the stories cover an impressive range of territory and subjects.
The characters that populate these stories—mostly men—frequently present a kind of rogues’ gallery of egomaniacs, narcissists, bullies, manipulators, opportunists, a flat-out criminal or two, and other assorted wayward folk. Well, nobody’s perfect. Many are lost, wounded, confused—often flummoxed by circumstances, forces, or desires they cannot fully understand or control. Some seem to embody the shock of David Byrne’s character in the Talking Heads’ music video “Once in a Lifetime,” who asks himself—on behalf of all who struggle to navigate the often inexplicable consequences of modern life, “Well, how did I get here?”
Stories often involve misunderstandings, misread intentions, or misguided actions, which can sometimes lead to unintended, violent, even tragic consequences. Communication frequently fails, situations turn ugly, things fall apart, lives spin out of control. Churlish or reckless behavior often transpires, self-delusion abounds. There were times when I wanted to shout at particular characters, “Stop! Don’t go there.” In vain, of course; they go there. Wandering the often-volatile and lonely terrain of these stories, readers learn to expect the unexpected.
The author adroitly thrusts readers headlong into the action of each story, and then, typically, proceeds to subvert or confound our expectations. Stories often break off suddenly, without clear resolution. There are no happy Hollywood endings here; all does not usually end well. To illustrate, the title story “House of the Ancients” (set in Mexico City), and several others, including “The Year of the Rooster” (Bali), “The Scream” (Copenhagen and Oslo) and “American Marsupial” (Chicago), all share an eerie, disturbing, hallucinatory quality; their protagonists appear to be undergoing a psychic breakdown of some kind, or are on the verge of one. The four stories end abruptly, leaving the characters—and readers—stranded, off balance, and shaken.
All that said, there is some joy in Mudville: all is not lost, no one, it seems, is irredeemable; or, almost no one. At the end of some stories, the mostly male characters reflect upon and, perhaps, reach some better understanding of themselves, their lives, and relationships. Often, it is women—girlfriends, wives, ex-wives, ex-lovers—who appear less frequently, playing smaller roles in many stories—who create an opportunity or potential for self-awareness in the male counterparts. These insights are not always positive or affirming, and may or may not lead to further growth; however, they seem offer some hope–a way to, if not redeem oneself for acts past, begin to take responsibility for future actions.
In the four linked stories in Part I, for example, we meet Nick and Alexis, who are in a dysfunctional relationship. Nick, who runs an ad agency in Chicago, met Alexis, a fashion model, during a photo shoot. They travel to Mexico City, Cuernavaca, and then to Hawaii. Wherever they go, Nick tries to control and manipulate Alexis, insisting she bend to his will. As the stories unfold, Alexis slowly turns the tables, taking control of the relationship, eventually leaving Nick in Maui after she runs off with their tour guide. In the final story, composed entirely of questions, Nick, now alone, ponders the failed relationship: “Am I learning something about myself here? Have I reached an epiphany? Did I deserve my humiliation? Will I ever see Alexis again?” While unclear whether Nick has learned anything, it seems, at very least, he is beginning to question himself.
In the story “Pluck,” Dick, a novelist, reluctantly takes a university teaching position after his wife Beth divorces him, and the advance on his new novel has been eaten up by the divorce proceedings. Adding insult to injury, his publisher then loses interest in the novel after seemingly unfounded rumors of plagiarism suddenly surface. Life is hard, as it usually is for people in these stories. Dick, fairly or not, blames Beth for his misfortunes. But he is a survivor, a fighter. Not one for self-pity, he works hard at his new creative writing position, has a positive attitude, demonstrates high ethical standards, and begins turning his life around. “I gave my classes my full attention. I was respectful to male and female students alike. I created a safe, supportive environment, especially in the workshops, where I would not tolerate the kind of personal attacks I’d experienced myself in graduate school. I made decent progress on my new novel. My students seemed to like working with me. My evaluations were, for the most part, glowing.“ He concludes, at semester’s end, “So, all in all, life was OK. Not great. I’d hit bottom, but maybe I was beginning to climb back.”
As Dick walks around the campus on Christmas day, Beth calls his cell. It is a holiday greeting; nonetheless, Dick expresses resentment that more likely she “was calling with some harangue about money or some perceived slight of one sort or another. I didn’t take the call. Let her leave a voice message.“ He listens to her message after the walk, “which, to my surprise, was an unexpectedly nice holiday greeting, not her usual jeremiad. I almost wished I’d taken her call, although I knew from experience that even otherwise friendly exchanges with her had a tendency to devolve into bitterness, so it was just as well I hadn’t.”
When Dick is invited to Christmas dinner at the home of a colleague and her husband, he discovers to his dismay that the other invited guest is a fellow novelist, Angus Denholm, a former classmate from a graduate writing program years ago. Not only has Angus since become a rival novelist (successfully), but we learn that he had once challenged Dick for Beth’s affections (unsuccessfully). Angus immediately and obnoxiously proceeds to goad Dick about his novel and recent divorce. After initially refusing to take the bait, the usually mild-mannered Dick unloads on Angus:
“Listen to me, you son of a bitch, you never stood a chance with Beth. I can’t tell you how many times she called you a pompous ass. And we both laughed out loud when that derivative story collection came out—“
“That won the Pulitzer? That one?”
“— because they reminded us of the drivel you passed off as innovative back at Iowa , still the same old horseshit in a new wrapper, just like everything else you’ve ever written.”
It is a wonderfully gratifying passage. Clifford Garstang knows a thing or two about the world of publishing, academia, and life of a fiction writer. You sense, at least I did, that it must have been as much fun—and perhaps as cathartic—for him to write those words as it was for Dick to voice them. Having spoken his mind, Dick leaves. As the story ends, he sits in his car replaying Beth’s Christmas message. “I took out my phone and listened to Beth’s message again. She did sound sincere in her greeting. It was nice of her to call. It was nice to hear her voice. Nice.” Who knows whether the two will get together again; it seems unlikely. Yet the possibility that they might, and that Dick has, for the moment at least, let go of his anger, make for a satisfying ending.
The final story, “The Scottish Play,” makes a great closer. If something of an outlier— eschewing the characteristic sturm and drang of most other stories, it offers instead suspense, humor, and an eccentric charm. The story presents a group of itinerant Shakespearean actors, focusing on a night they perform Macbeth at a community center in the Midwest. Introducing the play, two cast members joke with the audience about a superstition among theater people regarding Macbeth: that it is considered a curse to say the name of the play prior to performing. Instead, actors always refer to Macbeth as “The Scottish Play” to avoid bringing on some calamity. As part of the joke (or, perhaps, not?) one actor slips up and mentions the name Macbeth, eliciting laughter from the audience—and, apparently, setting the feared curse in motion. Mayhem ensues. Garstang is enjoying himself here, his narrator providing a running and amusing commentary on various cast members, on the play as it unfolds (or tries to), and the process of staging it—all of which enhance the story’s appeal. Familiarity with Macbeth is helpful but not essential, as Garstang does a great job of highlighting key moments, keeping us up to speed. You feel the Bard himself would approve.
As the performance begins, the actors notice an elderly woman with a service dog seated in the front row. Thinking nothing of it, the actors proceed with the play; for a time, all goes as expected. However, as readers will have learned by now, nothing goes quite as expected in these stories. After the three witches give Macbeth the three prophecies, news arrives that the first prophecy—that Macbeth will be named Thane of Cawdor—has come to pass. As Macbeth reacts to this news, the woman with the service dog stands up and approaches, her arms extended like she wants to hug him. Baffled, the audience gasps; but Carl, the veteran actor playing Macbeth, calmly escorts her back to her seat. The play continues without further incident until Carl, as Macbeth, now preparing to murder Duncan, is interrupted again. This time, both the woman and dog approach Carl. He tries to avoid them, but when the woman grabs his arm, he shouts, “What the hell are you doing, lady?” as the audience looks on, aghast. The woman looks stricken, and the dog barks; but again Carl is able to move her back to her seat, as the narrator comments: “Carl gives her a look—it’s a warning, sure, but compassionate, too, because obviously there’s something off with this woman—urging her to stay put this time.“
When the woman does not return after intermission, the cast is clearly relieved. But not for long. As the final act unfolds, things continue to go awry. In the famous “Double, double, toil and trouble” scene, two of the three witches forget their lines. Then the actor playing Hecate fails to appear on cue. Both the director and stage manager mysteriously disappear. Once again, Carl tries to take charge—improvising lines, skipping over parts to keep the play moving along. But now he’s in over his head. As he tries to wrap up the scene, the woman and her dog suddenly reappear, moving down the center aisle—as Garstang brilliantly notes, in a master stroke—“like the marching trees of Birnam Wood that will eventually lead to Macbeth’s doom.” Dog at her heels, the woman puts her arms around Carl, resting her head on his shoulder. “The dog sits and looks up at them. The audience watches, spellbound.”
Carl, at his wits’ end, extricates himself and leaves the stage, calling for the bell to signal the performance has ended. The narrator notes that “We have never ended a show without a curtain call, but tonight no one emerges on stage to receive their die.” Not a conventional curtain call, perhaps; but instead, something miraculous happens: “. . . the audience, with all their attention focused on the woman and her dog, applauds. . . . At first, the clapping is tepid, the audience still unsure about what they’ve witnessed, but gradually it builds and becomes thunderous. They cheer. The high school students stomp their feet and whistle. The rest of the audience rises, applauding enthusiastically, for a standing ovation.
The woman and her puzzled dog are alone on center stage. She turns to face the audience. She smiles and takes a bow.”
It is an exquisite moment—poignant and beguiling—a perfect ending to the story, and to this often odd and confounding collection.
Clifford Garstang writes with skill and power; these stories create an immediate and often lingering impact. We may not always understand, much less approve of, the characters and their actions. Were we to cross paths, we might well give them wide berth, or pretend not to see them. But who are we to judge them, Garstang seems to be asking, without passing judgment himself. The characters act and speak for themselves; they are who they are. Moreover, he suggests, those who deign to judge others do so at risk of their own capacity for self-delusion and hypocrisy. Carl’s response to the older woman in “The Scottish Play” is instructive. While he clearly regards her actions with disapproval, Carl is compassionate. He understands that the woman has personal issues over which she has limited or no control. Accepting this, he affirms her presence, acknowledges her dignity, faults and all, as a fellow human being.
In this larger, charitable sense, these stories hold up a mirror in which we may, if we dare to look, catch a glimpse of our own human foibles and failings, as well as grasp the potential for personal redemption–for finding the better angels of our nature. Isn’t this, after all, why we read and tell stories–to get outside our own heads, to access the minds of others, to walk some distance in their shoes? Read House of the Ancients with an open heart and mind. And be prepared: somewhere along the way you just might run into yourself.
Bill Preston was a community organizer in a VISTA project in Yonkers, New York, and later taught at-risk students at an alternative school there. In the Peace Corps, he taught English and trained Thai teachers of English; subsequently, he interviewed Lao and Khmer refugees seeking asylum in the Unites States. At Galang refugee camp, he trained Indonesian teachers, who taught English to Vietnamese refugees. For many years he edited English Language Teaching materials for several educational publishers. His multicultural anthology, A Sense of Wonder: Reading and Writing through Literature, was published by Pearson Education (2003). His poetry collection, Strange Beauty of the World World, was published in August 2019 by Peace Corps Writers.