The Iowa Review is one of the longer running literary journals in the U.S. It continually puts out excellent issues, and this edition is no exception. The editor’s note starts with a musing about St. Basil’s Cathedral and how its construction can be a metaphor for constructing each issue of the journal. That is, the people who do the shaping (editors, etc.) are kept in the background, but if a viewer scuttles close to the wall (or, a reader, the interior of the journal), its structure becomes palpable and its “shapes and colors” are made “that much sharper.” It seems that if one scuttles up close to the construction of this issue, two superb stories with a certain theme connected to misplaced or misunderstood sex become apparent.
The first is the opening story, Bradley Bazzle’s “Magellan,” which utilizes real characters from one of Magellan’s journeys on the Trinidad. There is Pigafetta, who is keeping a journal of the journey, and a former slave turned interpreter whom Magellan calls “Henrique.” Magellan is portrayed as a cruel master, and the condition of people on the ship is poor, with the few who are still alive barely hanging on to life. Near the end of the story, the crew strikes land, and Magellan brings Henrique to the island as a translator. Henrique takes advantage of the opportunity, leading Magellan to reveal his penis and ultimately end in his death. Henrique returns to the ship with food, and Pigafetta amends his journal, removing references to Henrique as inhumane. “Magellan,” which ranges from bleak to humorous, is a creative meditation on what is contained and what is erased from the historical record.
The other stand-out story is Chris Offutt’s “Eclipse.” This issue also contains an extended interview with Offutt, in which he is revealed to be a talkative interviewee with strong opinions on many subjects, including writing workshops and revision. “Eclipse” is a story with masterfully constructed asides that takes an unusual shape, running from the surreal to the more normal. More often, stories tend to begin in the less surreal and then grow more surreal as they progress; this story proceeds in the opposite direction.
The narrator, a man five years into his marriage, returns home from a trip to the hardware to store to find his wife, Carol, baking and wearing an extremely large and lifelike black dildo that he believes is much bigger than his own penis. In a careful detail, the narrator wonders first, not about the dildo, but about why the “color black always seem[s] to flare white in the sun.” It then hits him that he’s “wondering about the physics of light instead of the obvious”—that is, that he has no idea where the dildo came from or why his wife is wearing it. It is small details and observations like that one—observations that run counter to the reader’s expectations—that make this story an intricate, offbeat read. This story is a ride on a bender into uncertainty, a story that never loses its footing, but never allows the readers to believe that they know what will come next.
In addition to those two stand-out stories, there are a few other notable features of this issue; primarily the work of the winners of the 2011 Iowa Review Awards: John Van Kirk (fiction), Emily Van Kley (poetry) and Helen Phillips (nonfiction). None of these pieces are what one might call simply “easy reading”; they are sharp, astute and interesting.
Van Kirk’s story, “Landscape with Boys,” is an emotional piece about boys and the trouble they get into as well as the trouble they avoid. Its setting is timeless and haunting. Helen Phillips’s challenging “Life Care Center” explores the narrator’s complex reaction to visiting her sister, who “may or may not be dying” in a “Life Care Center.” The piece is dark, but not barren or devoid of hope.
Emily Van Kley’s poetry is deeply idiosyncratic and explorative. My favorite of hers, “Premises,” starts off, “She drove a truck. It wasn’t / a question.” It’s a nonjudgmental, descriptive piece about a woman who seems to be security guard at Kmart, a woman who bags Bud Light cans for deposit money when she’s not working. Van Kley’s imagery is precise and even-keeled. Her writing explores segments of society often left underexposed.
The runner-up nonfiction piece for the 2011 Iowa Review Awards, Maria Rapoport’s “City by the Woods,” explores a youngster’s early life in Russia and an emigration that her parents didn’t tell her about until the move was on, or nearly over. The essay evokes and explores the power of a hazy memory and the effect of trying to recreate a past with only photographs as a guide.
Overall, this issue of The Iowa Review contains all sorts of facets, a building with many sides, as the editors allude to; but all told, together it holds up marvelously.