Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet
edited by Glifford Garstang (Korea 1976–77); contributors include: Jeff Fearnside (Kazakhstan 2002–04), Jennifer Lucy Martin (Chad 1996-98) and Susi Wyss (Central African Republic 1990–92)
$19.95 (paperback), $7.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 76-78)
THERE’S SOMETHING POST-APOCALYPTIC about the twenty dark tales RPCV Clifford Garstang has gathered from around the world in this new short story collection, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet.
If fiction is what tells us the real truth, these authors and Garstang, who has worked extensively internationally and thus could be said to be “a man of the world,” are delivering some hard news. Humanity’s dissolution into an entropy of violence and perils to the body and spirit are backdrop, foreground and theme. The worlds of these stories are unrelenting in their helplessness, almost casual cruelties, ignorance and silence from any purported beneficent being. Most of the characters are vulnerable but on their own — literally and existentially. Stripped to the bleak basics, for most of the characters there is a dearth of grace and little hope of rescue.
“Read the book,” Garstang says in his introduction, “Explore the globe. But remember, it’s a dangerous world.”
No kidding. In the first story, “Eggs,” by Susi Wyss, an RPCV from the Central African Republic, a 15-year-old girl apparently orphaned by AIDS and on her own wanders a town where order has broken down. She is hungry. It’s late at night and the predators at the Bar Etoile seem to hold the best prospects for something to eat. The tradeoff is brutal: an egg man who won’t wear a condom. She is an innocent child trying to survive and no savior cries foul; no one cries out, stop!
After reading this devastating opening tale, I had to put the book down.
“Shit,” I found myself muttering. The other three stories from Africa are not much different: in one, politics turns savage. In a later story from Argentina, a young man goes mysteriously missing, and no answers emerge even into the last paragraph.
Obviously, this is no travelogue. There is no delusion in these pages, no sheen of comforting romanticism. In these pages, the world has come apart and the expectation of answers isn’t on the table. Some of the characters seem clueless, dangerously out of their element, or flat with incomprehension about the effects of their actions, like Tim Weed’s naive Lothario in “The Money Pill” or the reckless tourist in Jocelyn Cullity’s “Visiting Chairman Mao.”
With a few exceptions, the writing is excellent, the authors clearly possessed by a persistent, if uncompromisingly downbeat muse. That loveliness of craft — also true of Garstang’s own work in his 2012 “novel in stories,” What the Zhang Boys Know — makes the collection all the more haunting.
“I walked into the yard of my parents’ house,” William Kelly Woolfit’s protagonist says at the end of the story, “The Boy with Fire in His Mouth,” from Uganda. “The high wall around their property was topped with barbed wire and busted bottles, jagged-side-up. I thought that if I looked carefully enough, if I listened long enough, then surely I would be spoken to.” But of course, he isn’t. He imagines what he would have liked to do, what he might have done, but it is too late and we know he won’t.
As one might expect, the morality in the bereft worlds of this collection is often perverse, turned on its head.
In “The Widow’s Tale,” by Joseph Cavano, the narrator is a man who plays mandolin under a persimmon tree in a town that has seen better days. It turns out he has conspired with the widow to kill her daughter to grab her inheritance. There is no remorse. He suggests almost exuberantly that he did it for art, for artists everywhere. “Finally, one of us fought free from want and filled with time enough to shape and celebrate the world around us. Maybe it was nothing but lust and greed from the very start. Two deadly sins, masked by the thinnest of veneers.”
Organized alphabetically by continent, the collection moves from Africa to The Americas, Antarctica, Asia, Europe and Oceania. Garstang’s selections seem to suggest that we are somehow cornered — in futility, suffering, loneliness –— and repeatedly stripped of options no matter our longitude or latitude. We are past some kind of tipping point. We are all on this small planet together, universally watching the world degrade.
THE ONE STORY that melted my heart was Mark Nieman’s “The Ring,” placed in Hungary, where a longtime high-wire artist who dazzles circus crowds with her husband on dramatic trapeze acts comes to terms with herself, their risky life, their restless daughter who loves a “Punjab,” the breathtaking precision of their gravity-defying interdependence, and her “enemy in the mirror” — her aging, bitchy self.
“Ah, Miklos,” she sighs to herself, considering her husband. “Ah, Miklos, who will never understand. Who makes me beautiful for all the people. Who makes me fly, and makes it rain . . .. Miklos, my Miklos. Why do you listen to me. I am such a witch, I tell him.”
“No, he says. You are beautiful and I love you.”
Finally, some redemption, I say, mildly cursing myself for my outmoded need for emotional rescue. But if life on this world is that high-wire act and we’re all in danger of losing the hand that swings out to grab us, then love better be in the picture.
PERHAPS THAT’S THE ONLY ANTIDOTE Garstang and his authors in this darkly effective collection are willing to grant us. The rest is bad news. The trouble is, I think these writers — and Garstang, who by his choices makes us face some tough realities — might be right.
Reviewer Jan Worth-Nelson recently retired from 26 years at the University of Michigan – Flint, where she was a writing teacher and for the last three years, director of the Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching. She has just taken over as editor of East Village Magazine, a much-beloved monthly publication in her longtime hometown, and is sharing duties on this project with her RPCV husband Ted Nelson (Turkey 1964–67).
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