The title to Garrett Socol’s fiction book, Gathered Here Together, at first may be reminiscent of the phrase shared at the beginning of a wedding ceremony, but as soon as you dive into the first few stories, it is clear that the people are gathered for funerals. In fact, the short story from which the book gets its title is a story about a woman flying home for the funeral of her best friend. The tie that links the collection together is the theme of death; even when you think it is going to be a great love story, death creeps up, just as death creeps up on us in real life. The book explores the different ways that death, the fear of death, or the consequences of death can turn life in new directions.
My favorite story in the book was actually the last one, “Fame & Madness in America,” which reveals the strange ways in which people crave fame, even if it is for something such as murder. It has a Chicago-esque feel to it as we quickly learn that Brenda has poisoned and killed her husband because he cheated on her at their wedding reception. Socol successfully switches character views between Brenda and her brother-in-law, mother, sister, and ex-classmate, making each character unique and believable. The ex-classmate, Lisa Gherardini, speaks up to add supporting evidence to frame Brenda in her court case. In the following quote, Brenda speaks about Lisa:
It’s mind-boggling that someone who was a total bitch at age nine could be an even bigger one at thirty-two. You’d think life would’ve softened her, age might’ve had a mellow effect. Instead, Lisa Gherardini hardened: her features, her personality, maybe her arteries for all I knew and hoped. Behind that phony smile, beneath that oversize green jade bead “Flintstones” necklace and those cosmetically enhanced breasts, lived pure, unadulterated evil.
Compare this passage then, to the way Socol is able to switch gears and show the opposite character, Lisa, and her thoughts:
For some reason unbeknownst to me, Brenda thought I was making the Mona Lisa story up to draw attention to myself. What she failed to realize was that I didn’t need to invent stories to draw attention. Being the prettiest girl in class (in the whole school actually), I received more attention than I could handle. It was obvious Brenda was consumed with jealousy. She was also jealous that my father was a millionaire real estate mogul and that my hair wasn’t frizzy and I had a summer house.
In each story, Socol creates unique characters, all with different quirks. What I enjoyed most about Socol’s writing, however, was the way in which he buried literature and cultural references into the language of his characters and narration. With references to Naked Lunch, Saturday Night Live, authors that have killed themselves, and more, writers and readers will love picking out the hidden messages. Take, for example, the following exchange between Matthew and Carolyn, who are best friends going to pick out an urn for Matthew, in the story “Gone Shopping”:
“What did I do to deserve you?” Matthew asked, happy to feel human touch for a purpose other than taking his blood pressure.
“Well, somewhere in your youth or childhood, you must’ve done something good.”
“I guess so.”
Matthew and Carolyn shared a level of comfort rarely found between any two people. Her mere presence revved him up. It was an established fact that they had more in common with each other than she did with Matthew’s older brother, Wayne, the dolt who happened to be her husband.[ellipses]Like Matthew, Carolyn had a keen appreciation for jazz, literature, and Broadway musicals.
The reference to The Sound of Music is subtle, but appreciated by those who find it. This is like most of the stories in the collection; at first they seem outlandish, but with a little digging, it is easy to find truth, and to savor and ponder that truth.
My only complaint is that, at times, the theme of death feels overworked or too heavy. Once I caught on, I found myself expecting that whoever I was reading was about to die. At times, it was unsettling, but it always caused the gears in my head to start turning—the evidence that a piece of writing has done its job.