Coming from the low-residency Master of Fine Arts program at Murray State University in Kentucky, this issue of New Madrid includes several stories that show how powerfully style can be used to concentrate narrative force.
In “Trying to Save Some Fat Chicks from the Burning Wreckage of a Minivan,” Josh Gerald Wheeler’s narrator comes upon several women trapped in a burning van. His compressed, frantic thoughts go in a circle—from the van’s spinning wheel, to flowers on the license plate, to his dying mother, to an increasingly intense and detailed memory of adolescent sex interpenetrated with filmed pornography. Because Wheeler never lets us outside that spinning mind, the story picks up almost tornadic power.
In Emily Howorth’s “September,” the narrator, Linda, must deal with a demented mother, an immature daughter heading off to college, and a husband who does nothing but watch music programs on TV. The mundane tasks Linda undertakes are described in language of such unremitting claustrophobic ordinariness that eventually we come to understand her heroism. She is the stubborn center that, at least for another day, keeps this family from flying apart.
The most daring stylistic adventure is “Salty Water” by Kristin Lieberman. From a fifth-grade teacher who cries puddles on the floor to a science teacher whose body parts are mostly plastic or metal, the story has elements that would fit nicely in a picture book for young readers. But it’s also the touching story of a boy dealing with sadness and fear while his soldier father is away at war.
While relying more on traditional character development and plotting, the other stories pack their own punch. In Michael Gills’s “The House Across From The Deaf School,” the narrator breaks into his childhood home, where he recovers and reconciles with painful memories of marital infidelity and abuse. George Hovis’s “Checkpoint Charlie” shows how a lie—and a good bowel movement—can save the day for a couple married long enough to know each other all too well.
This issue also offers several engaging non-fiction works. Elena Passarello is an actress as well as a writer, and her witty essay “Playing Sick” meditates on all the different ways to say “Eew.” A second, shorter essay dissects Marlon Brando’s famous “Stella!” scream from “Streetcar Named Desire.” Both give us non-actors insight into what it’s like to practice that craft and art.
In “Descending the Staircase,” Dean Kostos writes a compelling memoir of friendship and loss among the young, talented and mentally unstable. Gro Flatebo, in “River Ice,” gives us another look at the familiar difficulties of parenting. She finds that a childhood memory of falling through ice both complicates and helps her come to terms with the competing claims of protecting her own sons and letting go.
The issue includes terse, nut-hard poems by Adrian C. Louis, Lee Upton and Rachel Bennett; translations by Peter Golub of the Russian poet Aleksey Porvin; two ghazals by Eric Torgersen; and many other accomplished poems Fifteen short book reviews round out the issue.