In the opening sentences of Naira Kuzmich’s “The Kingsley Drive Chorus,” a group of women in an ethnically Armenian subsection of Los Angeles neighborhood find themselves collectively and consecutively isolated as if in parallel tombs in a glass mausoleum. The storyis told in the first-person plural to create a grammatical tense that conveys, through expertly crafted language, a community at once too-close and fissuring at the strain of immigration and assimilation. The story conveys a national heritage, with measured references to kyoftas and the city of origin, but the story is not limited to remembering; it is not a honeyed tribute to Armenian sociology or history or even the adaptation of these pursuits; rather, it is an almost Biblical story of violence and loss.
The fiction curators of Salamander have a distinct eye for plot in their selections in this issue. Place becomes transformed by character, and character transcends the expected. In Linda Rui Feng’s “The Importance of Floating,” a teen with a mind that maps the midnight stars flutters through diurnal patterns in the waking world, the arrangement of mashed potatoes on a plate, the poignant signals of love. The attention to detail, and the judicious use of kinds of detail, characterizes the story. Look for these at the end of her paragraphs. “Above all, he tried to look at Junie as much as he could without staring.” Or “At such times, he thought the only appropriate thing to do was to lie down and slowly let the air out of his lungs.” In both examples, we note how the writer humbles the magnitude of her wisdom with ‘above all’ and ‘at such times’ which ropes the starlight down to the football field with gossamer rings of steel.
A different kind of force characterizes Mel Wells’s “A Missionary Position,” which examines—in a voice that trembles with humor against a scrim of holy rigor—the evangelical coming-of-age ritual in the Mormon faith. After the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of momentous social change, pockets of sources of authority—certain religious orthodoxy among them—were challenged and often discarded without the kind of visible, collective movement that characterized the civil and gender rights movements. And so, for these less photogenic progeny, lovely and cruel memoirs abounded, followed sometimes by other kinds of accounting—exposes and affidavits. In this tradition, Wells’s story is fresh, nuanced and funny, and yet respectful, and it is clear that she is not writing a documentary dressed up as fiction. It is a story that could salvage anyone who has ever sought God or love in pastel spaces, the vicar, the sister, the road-bound fiddler. It was the first anti-authoritarian fiction I’ve read that applied to our times, and with what verve and imagination, at the crossroads of libertarian individualism against the knee-jerk promise of the collective ideal.
A thread throughout the first three stories in this volume changes in the light. In “Chorus” it represents a major climactic turning point in the protagonist’s trajectory. In “Floating” it is the crux of character development and dramatic action. In “Missionary” it is something that happened that indirectly led to the end of a beginning, that is, it was an indirect catalyst to the moment of crisis. Feng foreshadows the emergence gently: “She told Russell that it was the best thing that could happen to humans, to be underwater and breathing.”
Suicide is not a “normal” response to stress, per the Centers of Disease Control, but it is prevalent in literature. I think it is a very tough topic to write about on any level, and it tends to be represented more in fiction than in standard journalism so as—I was told as a print reporter in the 1990s—not to foster imitation. Toward the scope of this review, these writers handle a delicate subject differently, and they handle it compassionately. The stories here achieve catharsis, without any kind of cheap shots. They do not use suicide as a dramatic exit, but rather as a part of life, like a wicked storm, passing through.