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From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet

Winner of the 2009 Hudson Prize, Patrick Michael Finn’s short story collection From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet includes plenty of dark circumstances, all set in the industrial sinkhole of Joliet, Illinois in the mid- to late 20th century. The stories are of the type popular in the early 20th century literature, when American Naturalism dominated the landscape. Every character’s fate feels pre-determined, based upon heredity and social conditioning.

Winner of the 2009 Hudson Prize, Patrick Michael Finn’s short story collection From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet includes plenty of dark circumstances, all set in the industrial sinkhole of Joliet, Illinois in the mid- to late 20th century. The stories are of the type popular in the early 20th century literature, when American Naturalism dominated the landscape. Every character’s fate feels pre-determined, based upon heredity and social conditioning.

In the title story, for example, a young boy watches helplessly as his house becomes infested with rats. Rather than solve the problem, his parents refuse to acknowledge the vermin’s existence, prompting the boy to struggle against both his genetics and his environment: “Well hell, then, I thought, I’m not fat and lazy like you up there. Goddamn both of you. I was so not fat and so not lazy that I seethed and surged red and, clutching the black trash bag, marched straight back to the darkest part of the basement.”

This futile act of descending into the darkness to face the insurmountable works its way into nearly every story. In “Smokestack Polka” two brothers confront their own futures as they watch a vulgar male threaten to court their mother after their father’s death. “In What She Has Done, and in What She Has Failed to Do” presents an elderly woman watching her street devolve into an ugly carnival of violence and bitterness when an image of the Virgin Mary appears through a window pane. In “The Retard of Lard Hill” an adolescent, struggling to define his own ethics, observes the meanness of his peers regarding the mentally challenged boy down the block. We know throughout these tales that the world won’t be kind to any of these characters, but their attempts to transcend place and circumstance are victories in themselves.

Finn doesn’t hold back with the nasty details. When the ex-dancer of “Shitty Sheila” ages to the point where her beauty can’t pay the bills, she isn’t just reduced to turning tricks; she’s literally dragged through the excrement of the grimy suburb until she becomes part of the filth. Similarly, the sympathetic orphan in “For the Sake of His Sorrowful Passion” finds himself marginalized in his gym class to the point of receiving the sexual by-product of his classmates each day in the showers. These moments go beyond determinism; the writer wants to humiliate his characters. The scenes are shocking, to be sure, but they also come close to sensationalizing the already bleak conditions. A lesser writer wouldn’t be able to go so blue, but in Finn’s hands, the horrible and the terrible never overwhelm his themes, mainly due to his measured use of language.

For example, in “Between Pissworth and Papich,” Finn physically describes his antagonist while also alluding to his larger matter: “Now Brian Papich usually passed through the world with a sluggish walk that might make you think he had weights in his feet save the glazed slack in his eyes that betrayed the distinct pleasure of neglecting everything.” This kid might present himself as one who takes pleasure in neglect, but (as Flannery O’Conner similarly proposed) deep down there’s no pleasure to be had at all.

Naturalistic influences abound when reading the collection, from Theodore Dreiser’s larger social novel concerns of individual desperation to Sherwood Anderson’s collection of grotesques coping with that desperation to John Steinbeck’s ironic sense of redemption. The ending of “For the Sake of His Sorrowful Passion” reads as if it were lifted specifically from The Grapes of Wrath. His gym class humiliation complete, the orphan of the story ultimately jumps a train with hobos and takes part in the birthing and naming of a new baby. As a whole, Finn’s Joliet best resembles Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, where the “no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums” all congregate.

Humiliate them as he will, Finn ultimately wishes to give his characters a light, as he does in the collection’s best piece, “Where Beautiful Ladies Dance for You.” Here an ex-con is given a second chance by an immigrant restaurateur who hires him as a bouncer. The story, previously included in The Best American Mystery Stories 2004, is at once a tale about second chances in American life and a subtle commentary about how American life is crumbling and running out of chances.

Finn feels most comfortable couching his commentary in first person coming-of-age tales. Five of the eight stories focus on young men growing up in the rubble of industrialization. Most of them are grown and reflecting back on their hard-scrabble childhoods. Yet as bleak a world as they paint, the narrators can be oddly sentimental, such as in “Smokestack Polka,” when the narrator recollects his father at Christmas:

I don’t know what went through his head to make him love the red sweaters and dopey songs; he simply did, and just about every December night after work he was moved to turn the kitchen into a Christmas Party. Jimmy and I could have gotten sick on all the candy he brought home for us, bags of chocolate bars still cold from the drug store icebox, Red Vines, Snowballs, and chunks of brown powdered nougat called nigger babies.

If not for the “nigger babies” added to the end, this could be a monologue from humorist Jean Shepherd, whose Northwest Indiana boyhood (in stories and film) also depicts a difficult coming-of-age in the savage Midwest. However, where Shepherd chose to laugh away the terrors of his childhood, Finn chooses to dig deeper into the soil. The result is a collection of harrowing fiction, as polluted as the place from where it was wrought.

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