Heroes, Heroines, Others



Joe Taylor

Some Heroes, Some Heroines, Some Others

Swallow’s Tale Press

168 pages, $14.95

Readers who know Joe Taylor from his previous book, Old Cat and Ms. Puss: A Book of Days for You and Me (Black Belt Press, 1997), an experimental collection of vignettes pushing the boundaries of the definition of the word "novel," written in an idiosyncratic dialect, will perhaps be surprised to find here a collection of much more conventional short stories, delivered in transparent English. In addition to a forthcoming novel, I understand that we can anticipate a collection of Taylor’s funny, twisted myths set in archetypal landscapes (like "Her Green Eyes, His Thin Fingers: A Tale of Infinite Love," from the first issue of Square Lake). In this current volume Taylor shows he can play it straight, with realistic tales set in an utterly recognizable America.

The connections between the humans in these stories are tentative, fragile, always seeming in danger of vanishing completely. "A Real Lady" is about an old alcoholic whose main lifeline is his relationship with the ghost of Billie Holliday. But he cannot talk her into marrying him and she will rarely stay past midnight. One night their discussion becomes particularly pointed, and the protagonist understands he needs a relationship with a living woman. He remembers the woman he met that afternoon, and vows fervently to call her in the morning, but when morning comes, he has lost the heat and we know he will never make the call.

"The Hound of Heaven" follows the thoughts of a man and a woman meeting in a park, sizing one another up while reliving the hurts so recently experienced in their separate divorces—as the man’s dog chews on a newly installed abstract sculpture.

The connections, while thin, crackle with voltage, twist with complex nuance. In "Alpha and Omega" the priest a man calls to give last rites to his mother turns out to be the same priest who molested him as a boy—and then told his parents he needed glasses:

After getting fit for his first pair of glasses, the boy had noticed that trees bear leaves. That is, he could feel what he had always known. Their discrete, emerald green blossomed a magnificent revelation that caught his breath; he felt his welcome as one of the world’s true wriggling creatures.

In "Da," a father taking his daughter to the bathroom at the movies encounters The Girl He Once Met. The two things the man remembers from a college course in Russian fiction are this woman and the character who slept all the way through a 700-page Oblomov novel. When the characters in one of these stories manage to sustain the bond between one another, or even to strengthen it the least bit, as do the "Da" man and his wife in the end, it seems a major victory for our side.

Although the heroes and heroines get title mention, some of the most interesting light in the collection shines on the culture in which the heroism is performed. There’s a great sketch, for example, of a 1950’s America where the flat protagonist of "A Gentle Glow" pines for a structure that will hold him the way the army did. This is a particularly American book. The protagonist of "America, Taken As a Wagon"—

. . . was helping her country by working. She was afraid, you see, that some vague thing would happen to her America, would corrode her seaside. She was afraid that the rumbling slippage she occasionally felt as far from the San Andreas fault as Provincetown or Key West or even Palm Beach might suddenly engulf her playground and liquefy her days. Working would provide the cohesiveness necessary to prevent this.

These stories frequently remind us they are set in literary graveyards, where old bones are artfully arranged for the characters to stumble over. You can imagine the stories footnoted for students in Intro to Fiction classes. (The dog’s name in that story in the park is Prufrock.) In addition to the central narrative, many of the stories feature another perspective, someone watching the telling of the story, commenting on it, like a set decorator discussing the arrangement of the bones. A particularly effective example is "He Who Has Ears," which alternates between one winter moment in a cabin in 1925 and the subsequent history of the United States as reflected in the life story of Henry Ford.



Copyright © 2003 Square Lake, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

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