Travis Holland’s “Planet of Fear” is one of a number of brilliant stories in this all-fiction issue of Ploughshares, edited by Peter Ho Davies. Holland writes beautifully. Three strands make a rich, bright braid: the narrator’s work with an exceptional youth in a boys’ correction facility, his frustration with his dementia-disabled father, and his love for his smart but innocent five-year-old daughter. Scenes slide seamlessly from one of these strands to another, the tension level rising slowly, steadily, as the client is bullied, the father drifts further and further from his original professorial authority, and the daughter grows into her own. Each episode is wonderfully drawn. Of a “nature walk” through an unfinished housing development with the daughter, Holland writes:
Black utility pipes bristled like decapitated daisy stems from the concrete foundations, across which the sand encroached in wavy layers, like cake icing, from old storm flooding, or just years of wind, doing its quiet work. Alligators occasionally nested in the sawgrass beside the footpath . . . Walking along with Sofia, I kept an eye trained on those placid-seeming thickets, ready to snatch her away. I’d warned her about snakes and black widows too, and so when she wanted to look under a particular rock, it was my job to flip the rock over.
The images, each a mix of danger and benignity, underscore the unsettled sense of responsibility weighing on the narrator in each of these three strands of his life. Nothing is in imminent danger, and yet nothing is quite safe. When the boy in the correctional facility finally cracks under the bullying, the façade of order crumbles. Readers feel the inevitable truth that nobody can fend off danger forever—only it’s more complicated than that. Something has to give, and everyone who cares has to pay. The story works on every possible level. Every single sentence achieves its potential.
The same must be said for Jerry McGahan’s “Arlene in Five.” The “five” are numbered scenes, following no particular logic but the logic of excellent fiction. Arlene’s cow dies; she has non-routine sex with her husband; he dies of pancreatic cancer, but before he does, her father-in-law weeps about his son’s impending death; her son comes to her with the news that his wife has left; a hunter kills an elk illegally on her land. There’s a summary, but this story is enormously more than the sum of its parts. We know Arlene through her terse dialogue and stoic actions. We know the complexity of her character through her interactions with men of various kinds—hunter, city-dweller, farmer; ignorant, grieving, needy. I would like an obituary like this story, whose final image is of Arlene’s own need, pushed away but known, refused but not forgotten.
Finally, Nancy Welch’s “Pretty,” another stellar piece in this issue full of luminosity. As in “Planet of Fear,” a man whose mind is failing plays a prominent part. He is the husband of Trudy, a high school teacher who’s been teaching one year too long. Pretty is the name of one of her students—not one of the Exceptionals; one of the entitled and unruly. As Trudy and Karl are driving on Trudy’s 40-minute lunch break to yet another doctor’s appointment about Karl’s deterioration, they are almost T-boned by a white station wagon with Pretty in the back seat. Shaken and angry, Trudy pushes on to the doctor’s, grateful nothing actually happened. But as it turns out, Pretty has been kidnapped.
Trudy tries to imagine Pretty using her words. That’s what she sometimes says, exasperated, to Karl—Come on! Use your words!—as if he were a toddler. Maybe Pretty has coaxed the boy, the other man, into smoking a joint, drinking a few beers, and then, once they passed out, car parked on the side of some dirt road, she slipped away. Maybe she is trying to make her way home . . .
The authorities are appalled to discover that Trudy has not reported either Pretty’s truancy or her presence in the white station wagon. Karl’s inability to communicate is a complicating factor, as are Trudy’s assumptions about both her student and her husband. Both are upended before the story can come to its conclusion; readers’ presumptions are too.
In his introduction, Peter Ho Davies ponders the impossibility of introducing someone else to what one loves in literature. But these three stories, and the eight others Davies has chosen, suggest that what a fine writer loves, many readers can readily appreciate. An illuminating “Look2” essay by Robert Anthony Siegel on Kawabata Yasunari, and a fine “Plan B” essay juxtaposing wreck-diving and writing, by Elise Levine, round out this exceptional issue. Ploughshares’s national reputation as a worthy showcase for the intelligence and taste of its guest editors is in no danger whatsoever of faltering.