Making Love while Levitating Three Feet in the Air
Jeff Fearnside (Kazakhstan 2002–04)
Stephen F. Austin University Press
Review by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
JEFF FEARNSIDE WAS A PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER in Kazakhstan from 2002 to 2004. He lives with his wife (an ethnic Russian Kazakhstani) and two cats in Corvallis, Oregon, where he teaches at Oregon State University, and is at work on a novel. Fearnside is an award-winning author and educator whose work in three genres — fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction — focuses strongly on place, culture, and the natural environment. He lived in Central Asia, traveled widely across Asia and twice bicycled throughout Great Britain. He earned degrees in creative writing from Bowling Green State University (BFA) and Eastern Washington University (MFA).
Of the thirteen stories in Making Love While Levitating Three Feet in the Air, some are about relationships between men and women at cross purposes, unable to communicate or to engage except in bizarre sexual break-throughs. Or not. One of the best opening sentences that hints at the problem is in “Stars”: “Steve never meant to lose Linda in the forest.” The best surprise ending is how Greg and Minnie actually manage to “make love while levitating three feet in the air.”
Some of the stories are written in a female voice that did not ring as true to me as male narratives, especially fathers and sons. “Maps and Compasses” is an almost mythical tale of a hunter, Daniel, who teaches his son to navigate snow-covered mountains only with his natural skills of orientation to the sun and terrain instead of maps and compasses. Alone, Ryan tracks a magnificent buck for hours, longing to bag this prize that his father would surely admire. A shot rings out from elsewhere and a side of the mountain cascades down upon him. (If you ever wondered what it feels like to be buried in an avalanche, here is a hair-raising account that you get to experience word by word.) After interminable hours of scratching at the ice and snow, Ryan sees the buck appear in a blue burst of daylight. “Then he realized Daniel was his father and the deer a part of them both . . .”
Most of the male characters are “poor working stiffs” with vague aspirations to self-fulfillment, symbolized in “Wing Walking” by a fellow called “Prof” who works as a luggage handler at an airport. (Reading details about how they stuff your luggage into airplanes is a learning experience.) He also “wing walks.” That is, he’s the fellow with orange paddles who waves airplanes onto the runway. “You’re out there directing this large and fragile instrument with nothing but your own two feet under you, and for a couple of minutes . . . you have the power to stop everything by bringing both arms together above your head and crossing your bright orange wands in an X.” Prof is awed by his moment of power on the runway, though he is consigned to toil in a cramped luggage hold.
“Going for Broke” is a captivating story that weaves a Japanese boy’s love of baseball that he shares with his father, who was a star for the Wapato Nippons. We learn about the history of Nisei teams in American baseball in the days when Negro ball clubs were not allowed in the major leagues. The family farms twenty acres they leased on the Yakima Indian Reservation in Washington state. Life is good until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. “They might as well have burned our family farm.” Within a week, Joe and his brother, Frank, along with their parents are shipped off to Heart Mountain, an internment camp in Wyoming. They live in barracks with hundreds of other “aliens.” The father loses heart, humiliated. “When one loses something, it makes one angry and want to fight. But when one loses everything . . .. Then what is there to fight for?” Frank opts to join the military, in spite of having to forswear his Japanese heritage. Yet baseball continues in the camp. Boys play, the father coaches and they all listen to the World Series. At the end of the war they return to their farm to face heart-breaking disappointment.
“Going for Broke” artfully weaves a painful part of Japanese American history with the saving grace of baseball. It is the most developed of all the short stories and would make a fine novel.
Religion is another theme of Fearnside’s stories: People coming of age struggle with their parents’ beliefs. “As to our being in love: I don’t know what that means any more than I know what praying’s about.” Occasional allusions to the Cathars of southern France intrigued me. Descendants of the Gnostics, they were deemed heretics by the Pope, and triggered the Inquistion in the twelfth century. A few of the author’s characters also find them intriguing, in part due to their relentless resistance to authority, singing as they were burned at the stake. (I wrote about them after a pilgrimage to the pays du Cathars (country of the Cathars) in my travel memoir, A House in Trausse.)
Jeff Fearnside is a very talented writer who explores deep vicissitudes of human relationships and our connection to nature. I’ll be looking for his new novel.
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon, as well as several travel memoirs.(amazon.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).