The first sentences of the work in this issue of The Austin Review are some of the best I’ve read. Each one drew me in a little differently but with a similar level of intensity. And although the first lines of all nine pieces are of equal measure, here are a few examples: The first sentences of the work in this issue of The Austin Review are some of the best I’ve read. Each one drew me in a little differently but with a similar level of intensity. And although the first lines of all nine pieces are of equal measure, here are a few examples:
“Last week, I received my first piece of posthumous spam.” – Lisa Wells’s “Advice from the Afterlife”
“There’s a hole in our fitted sheet that we are watching tear larger every night.” – Caitlyn Paley’s “If I Sent a Telegram from Korea, It Would Say All of This but Haltingly”
“It was the second Christmas without my brother and we were waiting for the President to call.” – Boomer Pinches’s “Between You and Every Horizon”
“A more diligent essayist than I might research and catalog numerous and various last words, searching for patterns of meaning and wisdom from departed sages, but I am interested only in two.” – Patrick Madden’s “Aborted Essay on Happiness”
Each piece, having raised the standard in the first sentence, remained at that level without dipping below. In the “Literati” section, Sheila Heti starts the issue by sharing portions of her blog meant to track her brain’s progress while reading the book The Brain That Changes Itself. Thoughts from her blog are sometimes humorous—”I know I am a placebo’s wet dream”—and sometimes profound: “It seems that memory is connected to story, and further, that story is connected to emotion.” This touchstone piece is perfect to open the issue with its truths, and its lies that bury and unearth true things simultaneously.
Under a section entitled “Truths,” David Olimpio offers this: “A kind of trick of the senses happens when you touch a dead thing.” The piece holds true from beginning (“It was Glenn who found the dead cat.”) to end, not only in his relating his own experience but in his broadening the experience for the reader. The three additional selections under this heading offer their own truths. See this in Lisa Wells’s remnants of memory of a woman who died, in words spoken about and to her, questioning, “Do the dead hear?” and informing, “In the Sufi tradition, saints’ ‘birthdays’ are celebrated on the anniversary of their death, the day they leave their flesh and rejoin the Beloved.” And again in Caitlyn Paley’s thoughts on typhoon season, clean laundry, and volcanoes, and Patrick Madden’s essay on the last words and judgments of Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Hazlitt.
In the “Lies” section, we find profound untruths we try to convince ourselves might be true, but never in a million years do they come close. Characters are important in the four pieces in this section, divulging their realities in their actions, inaction, and dialogue. Lily and Annabelle are sisters caught between divorced parents in John Jodzio’s story in which Annabelle admonishes her mother to “Quit using us as pawns.” The siblings in Boomer Pinches’s story share parents who act and react out of fear and ignorance during an unnamed war. Told from the middle brother’s point of view, the situation could not be more hopeless for understanding or communication. He questions his own fear of sharing something honest with his brother who has written home from “The War,” triggering anxiety at the thought of responding:
I sat with the pen in my hand and the paper blank in front of me. But I never wrote a word, not even his name. Part of me, I admit, thought it might be one of his jokes and I didn’t want to get taken in. I didn’t want to write something honest just to have him reply with a taunt. Or maybe he didn’t want a reply. Maybe he just wrote it and had sent it somewhere and he settled on me without much thought. But really I was afraid. It was the same fear that had kept me from telling him not to join the Good Army when we lay in our beds in the dark. What is that fear? What is so hard about telling your brother what is in your heart?
Derrick C. Brown’s “Hey Kid,” is probably the most enigmatic for me, and I find myself rereading it, thinking I am missing some weighty insight. The voice resonates, and I find myself thinking of Holden Caulfield. One truth I land on is this: “Flight lends me an infinite concern for far away little things—swimming pools are tiny sparkling rectangular crystals, are the things inside of salt.” I am in the plane, looking out of the window and nodding my head.
The most chilling of the stories, for me, is T. Kira Madden’s “Missouri Theme Park, 1986.” The family in this story embodies all of the dysfunction, fear, and anxiety within American families. I don’t think I glanced away or even blinked until the end.
I am in full agreement with Editor Michael Barrett in his brief introduction when he says The Austin Review “should be read fully, proudly, and without delay!” Each of the pieces in this issue will stay with me and may recur in my thoughts from time to time in the future. I hope so.