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The Missouri Review – Fall 2012

Volume 35 Number 3

Fall 2012


Julie J. Nichols

One of the many pleasing things about this issue of The Missouri Review is the design of the magazine, easy to hold in the hands, with a neutrally-colored cover and larger-than-usual font. Easy on the eyes, gentle and pleasant.

One of the many pleasing things about this issue of The Missouri Review is the design of the magazine, easy to hold in the hands, with a neutrally-colored cover and larger-than-usual font. Easy on the eyes, gentle and pleasant.

But even more pleasing is its theme: Risk. There doesn’t seem to have been a call for work with that universally magnetic theme. The nonfiction, poetry, fiction, and interviews apparently simply all fell into, or were brilliantly chosen, for their adherence to it. Kristine Somerville’s excellent review of four books on class and race in America describes the always-risky business of critiquing social “norms” that are, in fact, kept in their oh-so-stratified places by systematic status-seeking, -mongering, and –protecting. And her absorbing essay on Louise Brooks narrates with appealing energy the rise and fall of the intrepid silent movie star’s career, one “full of tragic glamour, romantic individualism and large accomplishments.” Brooks was a risk-taker I hadn’t known about. Thanks to Somerville for thorough research and polished writing.

Two brilliant personal essays, Carolyn Miller’s “Arts and Science” and Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s “My War Zone,” narrate universal stories of chance and fate. Miller writes about her college years, their wildness and naïveté, with a poet’s lyricism. Hryniewicz-Yarbrough shows how her Polish family’s perseverance through peril influenced her entire life, even when her actual circumstances were different, and reminds us that our lives, too, are fragile.

Margaree Little’s honest, chilling poems illuminate the vulnerability of Mexicans trying to make it across the border. As a volunteer seeking to aid these refugees, she saw their failures firsthand. The poems do not flinch. “What Was Missing” lists absences:

The undersides
of the hands. The hair.

The eyes. The chin . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Water that we could
have left for him.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Thighs. A name.
The face, the neck.

Little’s three other poems on this subject are equally unrelenting. That her subjects take terrible risks to achieve something better, and that she takes risks to advocate for them, cannot be questioned.

But for me, the fiction in this issue takes the prize in regard to this theme of “risk.” It’s not that the structure or the technicalities are particularly radical. They’re not. The stories shine with clarity, precision, lucidity. The characters, though, do take risks, real ones, stepping forward into life with reasonable fear and looking back with understandable sighs of regret, puzzlement, or disbelief. I loved all four.

Two are about teenagers. The eponymous protagonist of Michael Byers’s “The Numbers Man” is fifteen, his step-aunt Emily twenty-five; his father’s new wife thirty-five, and his father forty-five; “this tidily ascending numerical ziggurat pleased him,” we’re told. As he accompanies Emily on a fishing trip, imagining a certain potential conclusion to the outing, his mind casts over a “sense of his own relative good fortune despite everything, and a sense of the richness of things and the inherent interest of everything and even, in some way, its future utility to him. He had not yet discovered exactly how it would all add up, but he knew it would add up to something soon.” It’s a risk to go with her. He never does understand why she asks him to go. The last paragraph looks back from some years later with amazement: “by then it was clear to Paul that she was sort of crazy, had been crazy all along. Taking a fifteen-year-old boy out alone to go fishing! . . . A mission of mercy of some kind . . . ? But for what purpose? . . . What use could he possibly have made of mercy?” I like how Paul thinks. Life is risky, but you have to leap into it.

The other teenaged character, in Kate Rutledge Jaffe’s “Trickster,” is a victim of an online stalker. She wants to grow up, she invites the trickster into her life, but she knows perversion when she sees it and manages to save herself. For her, too, the final paragraph is a look back with wonder: how did she allow it to go on so long? Is the danger still there, even though she is older, married, the danger supposedly past?

Adult characters take chances too. In “Swarm” by Lauren Acampora, an elderly artist spends months on a huge installation project which costs his wife her life and which is taken down almost as soon as it goes up. In John J. Clayton’s “Jennifer, Naked,” an older woman flaunts her model’s body, to the dismay of her husband’s conservative friends—until the wife of the other couple decides to do the same, and reveals herself to be even more beautiful, in her motherly way, than the model. Relationships and ideologies are risked in this story. This issue of MR acknowledges that life is risk, energy is risk, effort is risk. We can’t survive whole in the world without it.

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