Reviewed by Regina DeAngelo (Ghana 2000-2002)
At age 76, Allison Murphy has found herself widowed and living at a home for retired military personnel in a suburb near Washington. In addition to the usual nuisances of aging, Allie has recently taken a fall on a throw rug. This placed her square in the crosshairs of the administration, who are monitoring her from the newly installed security cameras, as well as through the eyes of the smiley guard at reception, in case she takes another tumble. Then there’s her nemesis, Sergeant Trottman, who’d like to see her and her attitude assigned to the Memory Ward.
Amid the mini dramas of life in a retirement home, Allie’s own story unfolds. Fifty years ago, we learn, Allie was flying fighter planes: “nimble P-51s and barrel-bodied P-47s,” across the United States, delivering them to World War II pilots waiting at bases on the coasts. Now she has found herself fighting for her independence in the theater of a manicured lawn of an old- folks home.
In walks a family: a nephew, a daughter, and an old man of a dad, stepping lightly through the familiar first-day dance of dropping off the –“Loved One.” Allie learns that the man’s name is Earl; that he too has suffered some blows and has his own opponents to contend with. This is where their story begins. It continues, as if to satisfy listeners’ requests of tell me more, with the next story, “Two Hearts.”
These are two of the 11 stories in Martin Ganzglass’s Goats, a collection of imaginative short stories which ricochet across generations and geographies, from small-town Connecticut in 1968 to Italian-occupied Somaliland in the generation after WWII. Throughout, Ganzglass throws his voice, landing it with precision in characters like Kevin, an esteemed New York publisher who tries to dodge an ambitious old schoolmate; Brooklyn, a young man about to enter M.I.T. in the Vietnam era; Emily, a rising star in academe; and Potter, a golden retriever.
In “Bury My Bones in Napoli,” an Italian expatriate with a dark past and a final, desperate wish makes a poetic but improbable appeal to a diplomat who is both countryman and enemy. Ganzglass steers the reader’s sympathies from one complex character to the other as we discover their motives, conceits, and hidden histories. Over a lush backdrop of bougainvillea on fanned-cool terraces, in a country on the edge of independence, 1960s North Africa’s colonials are as vividly real as if Ganzglass had interviewed them himself. (He came close to doing so in his Peace Corps role, serving in Somalia between 1966-68, and later as he chronicled the country’s independence.)
In “Bridges” we get a picture of what might have been a young Ganzglass in the character Brooklyn, who at eighteen navigates the strait between high school and college during the early days of the Vietnam War. He’s got a summer job herding kids at an overnight camp in Connecticut, and in the evenings, as he and his buddies sneak out for beer and pizza in the nearby sticks, Brooklyn finds himself making an unlikely friend as he drives the boy and his drunk buddies home in their pickup truck.
Four years later, while driving through that same farming town, Brooklyn stops in to look him up. The story draws a tableau of two young men of close, but very different, worlds: one of them just out of M.I.T., embarking on an engineering career in New York City, the other a casualty of misfortune.
Ganzglass’s talent for point of view extends past that of humans. “In Good Boy, Good Dog,” we get the story through the eyes and nose of Potter, the family dog. “I take in their familiar smells, barely masked by their coverings,” says Potter about his people, who are dressed for winter, including what he calls their “paw coverings.” It is Potter who describes the sounds, smells and changing light on this most memorable Thanksgiving Day. All his people are there, plus a special, new one; we learn through the people-dialog who that is, but to Potter she is just extra treats, ear-rubs and walks outside. Potter narrates some other important things in his life, including “the blue-black thing that takes me places” and “the place that lets the cold air out,” from which his people remove things like meat.
“Goats,” the title story, is a modern fable with two flavors of hubris — one of a man whose historical discovery reveals an unflattering alter ego, and another of an academic who only seems to be above it. Like some of the unluckier gods of Greek mythology, they both get their due in a set of dramatic endings.
The last, shortest stories are presented as “lagniappes,” offered first-person, as if the author has put forth his hand to shake the reader’s. In these, as in Ganzglass’s longer stories, it is the spark of details that outshine the less compelling dramas of this collection. There’s the description of how an opponent shifted in his chair before calling out his bet in a poker game; the pumice-stone hands of the grandfather who recalled carrying 60-lb loads up the ladder to build an armory in 1915; the tiny carvings on an ancient rhyton that kept its secrets in eternal silence.
Ganzglass’s best stories hold a breadth of imagination, an ear for engaging plots, and a depth of experience, all of which come only from a writer who has lived in his characters’ worlds.
Reviewer Regina DeAngelo (Ghana 2000-2002) was a computer teacher in Accra and Berekum, Ghana. She divides her time between Philadelphia and Rhode Island, where she runs an intellectual-property firm with her spouse.