Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978-79)
In town to cash in on the NBA buzz generated by Murray State University’s versatile point guard Ja Morant, a writer from Sports Illustrated recently characterized Murray, Kentucky as “a city of 17,741 tucked into the state’s southwest corner, where on any given day you might find a horse pulling a passenger cart down 12th Street.” As someone who was incensed by the manufactured hokeyness of this comment — in 27 years in Murray, I have yet to spot a horse and cart on our main drag — I may constitute the ideal audience for Richard Wiley’s Tacoma Stories, a linked collection that gives poignant testimony to Tacoma’s gravitas as a place despite or perhaps even because of its general failure to achieve billing over the years as a destination city.
“Those were the days when a person could say “the unabated loneliness of the human heart” aloud in a bar,” Richie, the college-age bartender (later revealed as the struggling-writer stand-in for Wiley) announces in the opening story, “Your Life Should Have Meaning on the Day You Die.” It is St. Patty’s Day, 1968, and he has dyed his hair green for the occasion. He introduces us to the “16 characters in search of a play,” a.k.a. the locals at Pat’s Tavern, many of whose lives will be fleshed out in the following 13 stories, set between 1958 and 2016. Despite the Pirandello reference, we are not in meta-theatrical territory. Wiley’s characters are far from absurdist; it might even be accurate to say that they are mid-to-late 20th-century approximations of Chaucer’s pilgrims, albeit, for the most part, bereft of religion, all starting out together from Tacoma on a journey through adulthood, their stories accumulating into a narrative that begins to amount to way more than the sum of its parts. Instead of seeking heaven, these pilgrims strive for earthly happiness, and are forced to acknowledge a significant range of impediments to it. As a Tacoma native, Wiley holds his characters especially close to his heart. Across the pilgrimage of their lives, we see a slow burnishing of their hopes and dreams, but also of their failures.
Tacoma itself, like Dublin in James Joyce’s Dubliners, also asserts its own force of character. Local memory is all-knowing and all-powerful and defeats any attempts by citizens to hide their graspings at fame or descents into infamy. We learn that Becky Welles, the daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, found her equilibrium in Tacoma after an early life in the shadow of Hollywood, and that Ted Bundy, the serial killer, spent most of his early life there. Scenes from the 1992 thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle were filmed in a house at 808 Yakima Avenue. Even the “Frugal Gourmet” — Tacoma local Jeff Smith who was implicated in a late ’90s sex abuse scandal — makes a cameo appearance.
Some of the most powerful stories in the collection play out against a backdrop of war. “A Goat’s Breath Carol,” in which good intentions go awry in a big way, qualifies as one of the most haunting. Perry White, neglected son of an alcoholic mother, manages to accidentally kill a goat belonging to a family that has been kind to him. His missing father serves as the story’s ghost. Perry continues to hide in the same shed where he used to hide from his father. When Perry tries to drop the dead goat from the wheelbarrow into the hole that has been dug for him, all he can think of are the bombs his father dropped: “His father had told him that if a bomb got stuck, he, as bombardier, had had to climb down into the airplane’s belly and release it with his own two hands. He’d told that story lots of times, and now Bountiful was the bomb about to be released and Perry was the German village.”
“Let’s Meet Saturday and Have a Picnic” testifies to Wiley’s deep identification with his former host country of Korea. Kurt Larson, an 89-year-old nursing-home inhabitant, tells the love story at the heart of it, which dates from his time as a U.S. soldier mopping up after the Korean War. The Saturday picnic, it turns out, never took place. Arranged by Kurt and his two army buddies as a rendezvous with three gisaeng girls, it fell flat when they failed to show up. Chung-ja, Kurt’s girl, was the prettiest and spoke the best English. On the way to the picnic, Kurt fantasized both having sex with her in the burned-out mountains and marrying her in the embassy in Seoul. What does actually eventually happen between Kurt and Chung-ja is much less predictable and gets to the heart of Korea’s punishing poverty in the wake of the war. Ruth, the young Eritrean woman who works the night shift and to whom Kurt tells the story is a substitute for Chung-ja. Mrs. Truman, the widow down the hall, wanders in to listen too, and the responses from her “scorched brain” add to the story’s pathos. Visits from Kurt’s son Lars and grandson Lars Junior complicate Kurt’s end-of-life accounting, and their shortcomings start to feel like the consequences of his abortive love story.
Nor are all the stories freighted with tragedy. “The Dancing Cobra” is a joyous romp of a story, with a plot like a game of musical chairs. It could be subtitled Vibrator, vibrator, who’s got the vibrator?
“eHarmony Date at Chez Panisse” has got to qualify as the best story ever to use salt and pepper shakers as an objective correlative for conversational unease. In it, the descriptions of dessert, are, like the dessert itself, almost to die for: “Like the cucumber soup before it, the apricot tart demolished not only her face but all of the sinewy mess that her life had been until just about that moment.”
One story, “The Dangerous Gift of Beauty,” derives its title from a comment Sister Wendy Beckett—“British religious sister, hermit, consecrated virgin and art historian,” as she is billed on Wikipedia—once made on the BBC about a gift she lacked. Mary, Richie’s “knockout” fellow bartender in the opening story, finds herself in yet another fling with Earl, the “shaggy-headed” philosophy professor she met over 30 years earlier at Pat’s. “What if she had been beautiful?” she challenges him, pointing at Sister Wendy on television. “How would it have changed her life, and how would the lack of beauty have changed mine?”
The hardscrabble city Richard Wiley gives us in Tacoma Stories may bear comparison with Sister Wendy. Tacoma is not alluring in the way of cities where elites flock, but somehow it is still terribly dynamic and compelling. As reader, I almost shocked myself by feeling such a strong pull of attraction toward it. Wiley has finally given his city the loving touch it deserves.
Ann Neelon is a Professor of English at Murray State University in western Kentucky. The recipient of the Regents Teaching Award, she directed MSU’s low-residency MFA program from 2010 to 2016 and edited New Madrid journal from 2006 to 2018. A selection of her new poems will appear in Open-Eyed, Full-Throated, an anthology forthcoming in March 2019 from the Irish press Arlen House.