Reviewed by Clifford Garstang (Korea 1976-77)
Mark Brazaitis’s sixth book of fiction, Truth Poker, is a collection of superb short stories divided into three themed sections. In one sense, the fictions are a continuation of his past work, as these stories, like those in his 2012 collection, The Incurables, are also tied to the fictional town of Sherman, Ohio, and the campus of Ohio Eastern University. And, as in his earlier writing, Brazaitis draws on his own Peace Corps experience by featuring Volunteers in several of the stories, including those set in Guatemala, his country of service.
Beyond the Peace Corps connection and the nominal ties to an Ohio community, however, the stories here do, for the most part, feel like they are part of a unified project, and on that basis alone offer a satisfying read. They feature vastly diverse characters — a young mother searching for an identity, a mixed-race diplomat confronted with a dilemma, a young father hoping to hide his homosexual past, male and female Peace Corps Volunteers in their work environments, etc. — but there is something familiar in the ethical choices all of these characters face and in the blindspots they share. What can they safely reveal about themselves? What must they hide? What are the right questions to ask?
In the first section, “Blindness,” the stories — all set in Sherman — deal with blindness in its various literal and figurative facets. In “The Blind Wrestler,” which opens the book, the mother of a college-bound boy begins a relationship with a blind high school wrestler who, naturally, can’t see who she really is, and also doesn’t prejudge her. But then, she can’t see herself, either, and has the growing feeling that her family doesn’t really see her. The question she must address is what can she do to make them see her? Justice is also blind, at least in “The Juror,” which features a murder trial in Sherman that is jeopardized when one of the jurors visits the crime scene and experiences a different kind of sight, actually becoming a witness to a murder through a vision into the past. In the most chilling story in the book, “The Ghosts of Girls,” a resident of Sherman is blinded by her fear of repercussions and cannot see that the path she is on, which involves covering up a hit and run accident, is the wrong choice.
Several of the stories in the book’s middle section, called “Eyes, Hearts, Subway, Sky,” might easily have fit in the first — blindness continues to apply thematically — but the setting has shifted to Central and South America. These stories feature Peace Corps Volunteers prominently. In the first, “The Eye Man,” a Volunteer in Guatemala is helping to translate for visiting Evangelical doctors and works closely with one who restores eyes, if not vision, to the villagers. This story’s subtext, though, is that this doctor considers the inability to accept Jesus as another form of blindness. Similarly, another PCV in Guatemala is confronted with the corruption of the local police in “The Bribe,” where a “blind eye” can be purchased for a small sum. In the collection’s most moving story, “In the Village of Mourning,” a young woman arrives in the Guatemalan village where her dead sister, whom she resembles, served as a PCV, and she doesn’t attempt to correct the inevitable mistakes in identity. She is not unhappy to bring her sister back to life in this way, and to give her own life new meaning.
The collection’s last section is called “Truth,” and the stories here take the reader back to Sherman, Ohio. Secrets and lies make for excellent, suspense-filled stories, as the reader worries when the secret will be revealed and what the consequences of the revelation will be. In the poignant (if far-fetched) opening story of this section, “What to Expect When You Say You’re Expecting,” a woman is caught up in the excitement of her friends’ pregnancy announcements and says that she, too, is expecting. Unable to backtrack, she embarks on an increasingly elaborate charade. A more directly comical story, “Pistachio,” takes the form of an evaluation of the falsehoods and partial truths in a proposed memoir by an actor from Sherman, Ohio, who wasn’t what he purported to be. More seriously, in “Authorship,” a husband and wife argue over the appropriateness of his claiming authorship of a paper they’ve worked on together, even if the lie would ensure his tenure at Ohio Eastern.
The title story, though, “Truth Poker,” is the collection’s standout, and a fitting conclusion to the book. In the 1950s, a father and son move from Ohio to Washington DC after the death of the boy’s mother. They spend a good deal of time with a Congressman from Ohio and the Congressman’s nephew, but the boy only gradually realizes that there is something more to the relationship between the two men than mere friendship. The two boys play a version of poker in which truth, rather than money, is at stake. The game leads the young boy to seek to understand more fully the circumstances of his mother’s death, and what he is coming to suspect about his father.
Brazaitis’s collection, which won Autumn House Press’s 2014 Fiction Contest, is filled with gems. They are the kinds of stories that do what the best fiction does — ask questions. The questions aren’t necessarily answered by the stories, but the reader is left to grapple with them on his or her own. Who am I really meant to be? What are my blindspots? How do I find the truth, and what will I do with it if I find it? Considering these questions, like reading Truth Poker, is a worthwhile pursuit for anyone.
Reviewer Clifford Garstang is the author of In An Uncharted Country, a collection of short stories, which won the 2010 Maria Thomas Fiction Award from Peace Corps Writers. His novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, won the 2013 Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction. He is also the editor of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, an anthology featuring twenty stories set around the world, including work by several Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. In the Peace Corps, Garstang taught English at Chonbuk National University in Chonju, South Korea. He practiced international law for many years and now writes full-time. He is the editor of Prime Number Magazine.