This edition of Avery is lovely for its cleverness. While each piece is unique unto itself, together they make for a satisfying romp through today’s literati. Chelsey Johnson’s story, “Devices,” for example, offers a surreal picture of attempted perfection in “Once There Were an Artist and an Inventor”: “They are right up next to the sidewalk, and the inventor is always drawing the curtains shut and the artist is always opening them. The artist needs light. The inventor needs privacy. In other words, they are deeply in love. But both of them are a little bit more in love with the artist.” Lovely writing. Of the artist, Johnson writes that when she takes self-portraits, the effect is, “a look of assured surprise, a look somewhere between caught-off-guard and ready-for-my-close-up.” And, “If everything becomes like love, the artist starts to wonder, what is love?” Analogies emerge everywhere, but she realizes she has no idea what the things is itself is: “It is the negative space of a drawing, its form determined only by what interrupts it.”
For the inventor, on the other hand, ideas multiply, shooting new ones off each other. Every observation the artist makes, every fear or anxiety or worry or weakness she betrays, the inventor problem-solves like a madwoman. She can create a device to fix anything, “Almost anything.” But, as Johnson writes, “Try as she might, the inventor cannot invent a device to prevent love from breaking down. People have invented spells for this, practiced witchcraft, drafted poems, placed desperate pleas and daily telephone calls, they have made sculptures and paintings and built buildings trying to win back love, but none of this will work, and she knows it.” She then sets about inventing, instead, a device that … I cannot say, for that will give away this story’s end, and it is too delightful of a trip for me to rob you of the pleasure of finding out for yourself.
Lawrence Mark Lane’s “Buying the Boat,” begins when the woman at the door says, “This is so weird,” and the reader finds that someone else had walked into the house with the same intent for buying the boat a mere twelve seconds before the narrator. “Earl was the other guy’s name, and it is important to call him Earl now because in his half-cagey and half-dumb quietness, he seemed, once I got to know him, to have learned to use that name to his advantage.” As the story progresses, we are introduced to mountains and vistas, the intricacies of trekking, and of explaining death to a young child and a newly widowed Norwegian woman, and a park ranger. Everything about this progression of people and places is indiscreet, from insensitive faux pas to blatant sexual conquest, but at story’s end, Lane writes that the narrator returns to the home of the boat owner, Marci, and, “While she was in the kitchen I took out my wallet, took the five crisp bills out, and folded the bill in half, for discretion’s sake.” It is a perfectly realized irony, these last words, and they serve to flesh out every word that has come before.
Stuart Nadler’s “Beyond Any Blessing” is a meandering tangential offshoot into the narrator’s youthful love, and current lover, separated by 60 miles of unawareness. While this all seems innocuous, it is central to the story’s denouement. In one particular youthful scene, the narrator sneaks out his house to meet with his girlfriend and asks, “Should I set up a decoy body?” and is told that nobody gets away with this on TV. I’m most certainly betraying my age when I tell you that I smiled to myself at this, thinking that Ferris Bueller got away with it quite well.
Alyssa Knickerbocker’s award-winning story, “House of Wind,” is the perfect cap to this collection. Mona is a woman trapped between forgetting the face of her dead lover and remembering this man’s betrayal of her. Knickerbocker is at her best when she writes with descriptive language. She muses of Mona, on her tiny island:
There are high cliffs here, winds you can lean on. She opens her coat and leans. The wind pushes against her, undeniable as a wall, the wall of a house that is alive, that is breathing. A house of wind. She would like to go inside. She imagines it would be calm and yet thrilling, electric and privileged, like being in the center of a tornado. But there is no door.
As she continues to the near-end of the story, the author writes, Mona is remembering a feeling she’d thought was lost,
The relief of remembering such a thing, after everything she has forgotten, rushes over her like warm water, like his hands combing gently through her hair, like the moment just before you fall asleep, when you become blissfully aware that you are dreaming.
The writing here is of the sort that I love. It seems to flash between Hemingway-esque sparseness and Nabokovian turns of wonderful phrasing. It is, in short, the sort of creation that makes my own writer’s mind perk up.