The November 2017 issue of Gravel presents readers with a delicious tapestry of literary treats. The pieces in this issue stood out for the complexity they exhibited and for the strong characterizations they possessed.
Christopher Shade’s story “Postcard” gives us some snapshots of how a young couple struggles to make it through the doldrums of the Christmas season. The unnamed husband and wife are dealing with the depressing ennui that can sometimes replace, or co-exist with, the typical holiday spirit. They try to stay busy with the little, day-to-day things; the wife likes to write letters (“a lost art”) and surprise the postal carrier with them, because the wife simply “likes to surprise the postal carrier.” That’s a small character detail but one that gives a complete picture of who this person is: despite not being named, the wife feels like a real person and details like that are a reason why. This is a story about being emotionally stuck; about not doing enough in one’s life to make a real difference; about feeling a subtle, but acute, existential dread creep in. Not the stuff of typical holiday cheer, I know, but “Postcard” captures something about how that bleakness is probably more relatable than people are willing to admit to themselves.
“Good as Old” by Andrew Miller also takes place during the Christmas season but is decidedly less downbeat. Darrel is the proprietor of a shop that specializes in stained glass window and lamp repair and the story primarily revolves around Darrel simply talking to a couple, Lisa and Tyler, that is in dire need of his services. It’s a story with a simple set up but one, like others in this issue, that gets by on rich characterizations. All the characters are well-realized, rounded, but Darrel, the main character feels authentic, as if you’d know him in real life. He’s remarkably sympathetic: a nice, patient old man who takes Tyler’s brusqueness in stride. At one point, Miller writes: “Darrel pulled off his glasses, slipped them into his shirt pocket. They think me old, he thought.” That is nuanced characterization. You can almost see Darrel giving a half-smile and a “huh” and a shake of the head—but we don’t need to see all of that. The gesture given carries with it all that extra contextual work. It’s doing the heavy-lifting. I just love writing like that.
I really liked “Bedside Manner” by Samuel Cole, a story about a young kid who comes to visit his ailing grandfather and the repartee they share. It’s a familiar experience for many: a grandparent who wants to spend what little time remains on this earth connecting with their grandkid. It’s the way Cole presents this story that stands out and feels new. The framing of the piece with the grandfather’s tale and how it loops back on itself makes for a complex story as we try to infer what the grandfather’s enigmatic tale means in the grand scheme of things. Despite essentially taking place in one setting—a bedroom in a nursing home—the story is exciting because of the well-done pacing. There’s a noticeable craftsmanship to the construction.
A sense of craftsmanship shows up everywhere in this issue. Peycho Kanev’s poem “Boundless” struck me with its starkly grave imagery. One of my favorite lines I’ve read in any poem in a long time reads: “The stork stands on the utility pole like something / out of a nightmare, bloodied by the sunset.” That just feels like a line that could almost be a poem unto itself. This apocalyptic poem ends on a suitably grim and haunting image: “In the bombed city somebody plays the piano / in a collapsed house.” Closing a poem on an image that visual is something every poet should aspire to.
Among the several engaging flash/hybrid pieces in the issue, I found “Make and Model” by Nicholas John-Francis Claroto be riveting. The opening line grabs hold immediately: “Years ago when my father was still alive, I watched him put a cigar out on a kid’s cheek.” The story focuses on this one moment in the narrator’s life that has stayed with him all his life. This is a compact little tale that packs a wallop and portrays the psychological complexity behind a potentially traumatic event from the narrator’s past. And it functions well, both taken as a flash piece or a creative nonfiction piece—the truth is probably somewhere in between and that’s what makes it all the more compelling.
Gravel is a literary magazine that’ll give readers looking for subtly complex, literary pieces plenty to discover. The writing is strong and exciting and many of the pieces left me thinking about them in some way long after I was done reading. Gravel is a literary road I would definitely travel down again.