Every May, I try to read as many short-story collections as I can to celebrate short-story month. This year I only read one, but it was remarkable.
Backswing by Aaron Burch, published by Queen's Ferry Press, gathers a collection of stories about young American men who are mostly white, suburban and college-educated. We meet these men on the cusp of a transition: moving to a new school, taking the next step in a relationship, buying a house. Whether it's junior high or a mortgage, "the next big thing" looms like a great wall over which the characters cannot see and whose vastness inhibits their desire to overcome.
"It seems too real, too soon, we said, like we should keep looking just to be sure despite all the research we'd already done."
That scene comes from "Night Terrors," in which a young couple come to terms with their reluctance to make an offer on a house because of a strange omen: When the Realtor showed them the property, they found a dead bird outside the back door.
Although many of the stories seem fairly straightforward, there's a discomfiting strangeness that's both deep and dark. Burch is particularly adroit at rendering these scenes so that they don't seem strange to their protagonists, and the dislocation can be dizzying.
The story "Fire in the Sky" is an arresting example. The set-up is right out of a buddy comedy: A group of friends gathers for a bachelor party the night before the groom's wedding. The protagonist decides to return for the wedding in his hometown by car. He intends to drive cross-country and take in all that America has to offer, but that's not what happens:
"Once I got on the road though, my plans to see the country fell away. I couldn't help it, barely felt in control of my car at all. The driving felt good, the road pulling me forward, not wanting to let go. I stopped only for food and gas and then, by the time it was too late and dark to continue, a cheap motel room."
Propelled by forces he can't explain, he rushes across the country to find his friends more or less unchanged. Dressed in their wedding-day tuxedos, they kick off the bachelor-party festivities by setting off a small arsenal of fireworks, a tradition from their more rambunctious days.
"Try two mortars, twisting their wicks together. Two mortars and two packages of bottle rockets. One mortar and three packages, four, five, as many as can be crammed in, the just-right number of sticks to fit the exact diameter of the mortar tube."
You don't need an advanced degree in literature to see that this isn't going to end well. I don't want to give anything away, but suffice to say, this isn't an Adam Sandler movie.
After a trip to the hospital, the protagonist leaves with the other wedding guest who has also moved away. They end up at a bar and order a pitcher of beer, and instead of talking about the terrible thing that has happened, they tell old stories about other nights, other hijinks, as if to reassure themselves that everything will be OK even though they both know that nothing will ever be the same.
The story's ending resonates on so many levels. "Fire in the Sky" speaks to the lack of connection the protagonist feels about a place that is home in name only. He yearns for such a place yet runs from the obligations of being part of a community, the responsibilities of connectedness.
As themes go, "you can't go home again" is neither groundbreaking nor new, but Burch is on to something here. His protagonist is educated, self-aware and has good intentions, but I think his reluctance to accept the larger issues that attend the accident says something about our society's inability to deal with the aftermath of tragedy.
We like to think of ourselves as problem-solvers, as being good in a crisis, but I don't think that's true anymore. In fact, we have repeatedly shown that we are incapable of addressing problems that other societies have successfully solved. Instead of directly dealing with issues that have created an epidemic of violence, we declare that they are "too real, too soon" and commit to further study and additional research.
With Backswing, Burch reminds us that things can always get darker for those who flee from the real.
Aaron Burch will appear at Gym Standard (2903 El Cajon Blvd. in North Park) at 7 p.m. Friday June 27.
Jim Ruland is the co-author of the book, Giving the Finger. He blogs at www.vermin.blogs.com/bl