Sometimes I wonder why we even need stories. Reading (or watching) stories can be a distraction, just another way of filling up time. I’ve stopped listening to books on tape while I walk my usual 3-5 miles a day, in order to pay better attention to what’s around me, though I still listen to them in the car.
Yet I’ll never give up my addiction to stories. For me, it is not so much the surrogate thrill of an adventure story or the satisfaction of solving a mystery story’s puzzle—though I enjoy both—as it is the sense of being taken out of my life. Occasionally it’s just a relief to escape for a while from the endless story of me, but more often I actively want to be someplace else—Turkey or Antarctica—or I want to know what it is like to be someone else—an immigrant from Jamaica or an English student gone walkabout (or boat-about). As if I were an actor able to play many roles on stage, reading gives me the chance to experience alternative lives and bring back the lessons I’ve learned.
These stories of Jean McGarry’s are not so much about home as they are about family. They bring to life childhood and the way siblings relate to each other. “The Calling” reminded me of the nicknames, teasing and insults; as well as the underlying connection. I also particularly liked the subtlety of “Mr. and Mrs. Bull” where a woman visits her aunt and uncle for the first time in ten years, and we only gradually realise the great gift she has been given.
The stories are deeply imagined and precise, using the right details to create their world. Most of them are set in or near Providence. I recently spent several weeks in New England, reconnecting with old friends, wandering through small towns and rural routes, avoiding the fancy Boston bars and pilgrim re-enactors. I was overwhelmed by the number of ponds opening beside the road, ponds that sparkled under the sun, their ruff of pine trees dark and mysterious.
New England always seemed reticent and withdrawn to me. However, on this trip, I was surprised by how friendly everyone was: the gas station attendant who regaled me with the saga of a thunderstorm earlier in the day; the shop clerk wanted to chat about the relative merits of Carver and Plymouth; another who (though half my age) wanted to know all about my plans for the night; the young waiter who stayed to chat after taking my order, convinced he had waited on me before, even as the table of laughing girls called for him to come back and hang out with them.
Many of McGarry’s stories capture that defiant New England sadness that fills towns from Pawtucket to Barre, a hopelessness that is offset—buoyed somehow—by a feisty harshness, a determination to get by. The routes I traveled revealed vegetable stands with hand-painted signs and backyard body shops where men with tattooed arms lifted fenders and swung mallets. McGarry’s stories of families and communities struggling not to dissolve made me sad, until I recognised the network of connections that underlay them, like veins under the skin, tough fibers that would not give up their hold.