Monday, December 04, 2006

Book Review: Jim Tomlinson's "Things Kept, Things Left Behind"

Sure, I love short stories -- in principle. My all-time favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut, and I’ve read every novel and autobiography he’s written. But even I couldn’t make it all the way through Welcome to the Monkey House, his first short story collection.

Perhaps I’ve become jaded simply by growing up in the era of MTV, but I have come to expect the complete story: the arc, the conflict, the resolution, the denouement. Where once we had static splashes of paint on canvas, leaving us guessing about exactly what a picture might represent, now we have television and film -- complete stories with completely developed characters and a beginning, middle, and end. It’s what we’ve come to expect, possibly to the detriment of the past masters.

This has spilled over to literature, as well. The novel -- the story that starts on the first page and neatly ends on the last (with perhaps just enough of a cliffhanger to get people to buy the sequel) -- has become the pinnacle of literary creation, to the detriment of the short story -- the literary equivalent of the still life, the portrait, the sculpture.

Fortunately, even though novels win the day, the art of the short story is still practiced by a few deft hands.

Things Kept, Things Left Behind is a collection of short fiction that won Jim Tomlinson the 2006 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and for good reason. What daVinci is to art, Jim is to fiction.

In this collection, Jim introduces us to people. Not characters, not stereotypes, not archetypes -- people. Jim presents glimpses into the lives of real people. And, much like the glimpses we get of strangers’ lives every day, their stories do not start with the first word, nor do they end with the final punctuation. This is what makes these stories great.

And he wields his words like a master, at times abandoning so-called “proper grammar” to create something that couldn’t be taught in a high school English class. We’ve all seen incomplete sentences, run-ons, and the like. But rarely do we see them used with such accuracy and with such great results.

The common thread throughout these stories is failed or failing marriages. In each story, Jim reveals what really goes on in the hearts and minds of ordinary people as their marriages die. But don’t look for “And they all lived happily ever after,” because you won’t find it. What you will find are well-told stories about people you recognize, and these stories leave off in moments of despair, indecision, confusion, anger, exasperation, pain, and hope. But the stories don't really end. Sure, the words stop, but the people in these stories don't. The true endings of these stories are left to the minds of the readers.

And along the way, you'll find some little gems of beautiful writing. Here’s one of my favorites, from “Things Kept”:
Sometimes she thinks of herself as a howl. The wail of a coyote, maybe, or a
lone banshee, a shriek dying away in the night without reaching ears. Piercing,
like something wrenched raw from an orphaned soul. A hollow thing, haunted, a
sound that lives on, still shrill in the memory long after its echo dies.

Things Kept, Things Left Behind is well worth the reading.

Who would like this book?
People who are separated or divorced; people who are happily married (though they would enjoy it for a different reason); people who prefer the truth, even when it isn’t pretty; real people.

Who wouldn’t like this book?
People who think that Disney movies have the best endings; newlyweds (this book tops the list for the world's worst wedding gift); people who insist on “correct” grammar and complete sentences; people who don’t deal well with a lack of closure.

Find out more at Jim's Web site.


Jim said...

Thanks so much for this, Andy! I really appreciate your giving the book this attention.

I think of this group of stories as being primarily about relationships between characters. Several of those relationships are marriages...or former marriages, the characters now divorced. But there are also stories of sisters and mother ("Things Kept"), father-son ("Paragon Tea"), lovers ("Things Left Behind"), platonic friends ("Prologue")and brothers ("Lake Charles"). The one story not obviously about relationships is about a character scarred by war, numb and now stunted in his relationships ("The Accomplished Son").

None of these stories are told to a Disney-like happy ending, as you noted. But several, I think, have moments at the end when I can believe there is a coming redemption for at least one of the characters. To me, that's how life works. It's the reality I want my stories to reflect. If the reader can't always smile at the end, at least I hope he can nod his head, having recognized something real at the story's core.

misscharlie said...

Andy, Your review of Jim's book is superb. You're very good at this, you know.