Review: Stories By Korean RPCV Clifford Garstang

Award winning writer and Guatemala RPCV Mark Brazaitis reviews In an Uncharted Country by Korea RPCV Clifford Garstang, published this September by Press 53.

in-an-uncharted-country-140hIn an Uncharted Country
by Clifford Garstang (South Korea 1976–78)
Press 53
August 2009
204 pages

Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)

If Clifford Garstang’s stories were a city, they wouldn’t be a place you would have heard much about. But if you happened to settle there, you wouldn’t want to leave.

In “White Swans,” one of the stories in his excellent debut collection, Garstang tackles the same subject matter that National Book Award-finalist Mary Gaitskill does in the title story to her third collection, Don’t Cry. In Gaitskill’s story, a woman, recently widowed, is helping a friend adopt a child from Ethiopia; in Garstang’s, a married couple is in China to adopt a daughter.

In both stories, bureaucracy is only part of what the characters must overcome. In the Gaitskill story, the protagonist wrestles with her guilt over an affair she had with one of her students prior to her husband’s death. In Garstang’s story, the protagonist must decide whether to remain with his wife and daughter in China until the adoption is official or return home to his dying father, with whom he has a complicated relationship.

The Gaitskill story approaches the melodramatic: “Much closer than the gunshots was the machine of my body, buzzing inside me. It came from inside me and also enclosed me like the darkness and the warmth of the night. It said, It doesn’t matter if you die here. It might be better if you die here.”

Garstang’s story heads in the opposite direction, toward understatement: “Elton couldn’t sleep. A vision of his father, frightened and pale, attached to tubes and wires, wouldn’t leave him. He slipped out of bed. In the green glow of streetlights he packed a suitcase. Megan stirred in her crib and he went to her, stroked her feather hair with his finger.”

Whether one prefers Gaitskill’s dramatic-bordering-on-melodramatic story or Garstang’s less flashy piece is a matter of taste. It’s the difference between Los Angeles and Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s the difference between the authors’ profiles. Gaitskill has been a finalist for the National Book Award and her stories appear regularly in The New Yorker. Garstang has been quietly compiling an impressive résumé, including publishing work in small but prestigious literary journals such as the Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, and the North Dakota Quarterly.

In an Uncharted Country features stories with recurring characters and settings. The strongest connection between them all, however, may be theme. The collection is about characters searching to find their place in their communities and within their families. In a daring exposition of this theme, “Saving Melissa,” a mother steals her daughter from her ex-husband and they move from place to place to avoid detection. But is this moveable home the best home for Melissa?

Garstang writes the story in the first person, from the mother’s point of view. It’s a risky choice-and it pays off beautifully: “Always it was my fault, to hear Max tell it, even before the divorce and the lopsided custody mess. Still makes my face hot to think about it, all these years later, Max standing there is his shiny brown suit and skinny tie, talking about me like I wasn’t even there.”

Garstang does equally well whether he’s writing an adventure story (“Flood, 1978”), a love story (“William & Frederick”), or a whodunit-or, better put, an is-he-going-to-get-away-with-it. In the latter story, “Stonewall,” readers might resist sympathizing with a dog-killer. Or, given the dog-killer’s wife-abusing antagonist, perhaps they won’t.

Press 53 and its founder, Kevin Watson, have made it their noble mission to bring short story collections (as well as collections of poetry) to the reading public. Thank goodness. These days, writers wishing to publish their short story collections either have to win one of, oh, a measly eight national contests, sponsored by small or university presses or write a best-selling novel whose success justifies the financial risk of publishing the author’s short stories.

Garstang’s book looks good and reads better. And there isn’t a literary author alive who wouldn’t want blurbs by the writers-Elizabeth Strout, Tim O’Brien, and Peter Ho Davies-featured on the back. Also, the book’s price is as reasonable as Garstang’s twelve short stories are memorable.

Here’s hoping that Press 53 prospers and brings us more authors like Clifford Garstang.

And here’s hoping we hear more from Garstang soon.

Mark Brazaitis is the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and Steal My Heart, a novel published in 2000 by Van Neste Books and the winner of the Maria Thomas Fiction Prize. Mark’s most recent collection of stories is An American Affair, winner of the 2004 George Garrett Fiction Prize from Texas Review Press. He is an associate professor of English and the director of the Creative Writing Program at West Virginia University.

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