Families in various stages of self-destruction or survival are a connecting thread for most of the prose in this issue of Carolina Quarterly. Fiction and memoir today are rife with stories about the unsettled, uncommitted young, so it’s refreshing to read strong writing about people who have tried to firm up some ground beneath their feet—even if the effort sometimes fails catastrophically.
Catastrophe is an appropriate description for events in Jessica Hendry Nelson’s powerful essay, “If Only You People Could Follow Directions.” Eric is deep into the chaos of addiction, using again after eight months of rehab. When his enabling mother and sister, the narrator, join him in Florida, the visit turns crazy and desolate, triggering equally disturbing memories.
At last, the three find themselves on a gray, windy shore, where the narrator senses that a free-floater they have only just met has managed to get their number: He seems to know that “this isn’t just some . . . half-baked family reunion, the three of us squatting here on this beach, sans bathing suits and suntan lotion, mid-August in Florida, for god’s sake, shivering in our sweat and bug-eyed from exhaustion.” Whether Eric has in fact hit bottom, it’s possible that at least the narrator has.
The narrator of Anya Groner’s equally powerful short story, “Gorilla and the Protégé,” is an adult woman remembering a childhood friend’s 13th birthday party, for which the friend’s father hired his mistress to dress up like a gorilla and do party tricks with balloons. The mother is present, knows about the mistress, and is drinking. Fun turns vicious, and mayhem ensues.
The girls only half understand what has happened, and as the party ends they gather around an Ouija board: Who would they marry? Someone famous? Would they elope? Would any become old maids or lesbians? As an adult looking back, the narrator sees premonitions of her own troubled future. “But at that age nobody thought to ask what love felt like, or how we would cope when it left us.”
In his perfectly paced short story, “The Sweet Nothings,” Greg Schutz uses a much longer time-frame to explore the adult life of Valerie and Mack—a kindergarten teacher and the big, slow guy she marries—and the challenges posed to that marriage by their troubled son, Kevin. It is a tale whose broad outlines are listed in the marriage vows—better and worse, richer and poorer, in sickness and health. But the abstractions are fleshed out with such achingly deft realism that you are likely to find yourself lingering over details while wanting to rush ahead to find out how the story ends. For Valerie and Mack, both of them physically large people, it ends touchingly, profanely and tenderly in bed.
I found the ending of Stuart Nadler’s short story “Airplanes” to be more ambiguous, but also in an artistically satisfying way. Marc, a Boston day-trader, and his wife Janet are “roommates sharing a child.” This marriage is clearly headed for a businesslike divorce. What little emotional capital Marc possesses is invested in his son Jack—and in the Brooklyn apartment he once shared with a woman named Laura. When Marc sees in the paper that the apartment is for sale, he goes to New York for the open house, taking Jack along.
Laura is quite upset to see her ex-lover and his young son show up out of the blue, but Marc hangs on to his emotional distance. Jack, however, is confused because the neighborhood resembles home. We learn that Marc actually chose his Boston neighborhood because it looked so much like the one in Brooklyn. “Relax, buddy.” Marc tells his five-year-old son. “Time to go home.” But where and what is home? I’ll probably be waking up a year, five years from now, seeing new angles in this story.
The shortest prose in this issue, a mere two pages, is a family story only in the sense that the narrator’s little brother has drowned, a fact that is mentioned only briefly. Instead, Elizabeth Weld’s “Primary Education” is a wise and compassionate coming-of-age tale of a young girl who, while innocent in second grade, in fifth grade has discovered evil in the world and in herself. It’s a gem.
Award-winning 16-year-old photographer and artist, Eleanor Leonne Bennett, contributed four outstanding black-and-white photos—one of which, the haunting “High Simple,” is reproduced on the cover.
I’ve focused this review on the prose, both because it is excellent and because of its thematic linkages. But the issue also includes very good poetry in a variety of styles and themes from Stan Sanvel Rubin, Caitlin Bailey, Corrie Williamson, Shelley Puhak, David Moolten, Seth Perlow, Matt Zambito, and Ben Purkert.