I enjoyed this short story collection immensely. The author was new to me, selected by one of my book clubs. Unlike Olive Kitteridge which I blogged about a few weeks ago, each story here stands alone.
Some people dislike reading short stories because of the effort required to get into a new set of characters and situations; once having made that investment, it can be frustrating to have the story end after a couple of dozen pages. However, I find short stories are perfect for when I have only a little bit of time to read, such as during my half-hour lunch. Also, I appreciate the punch they deliver, heightened by the compression necessitated by the short form.
What does tie the collection together is the author’s unsentimental compassion for his characters. And his generosity. And his remarkable writing.
In “Bastogne”, a man visits the Belgian village where his father fought in the Second World War. This is a story about love. Faced with his own mortality, the narrator moves back and forth in time, weaving his father’s tales into the threads of his own life, and those of his mother, his wife and young son.
Only a very good writer can handle this kind of impressionistic style without irritating me, and McNally is very good indeed. Instead of using linear time to create the narrative arc, McNally uses certain images—dogs, an apple-cheeked nurse, a burning tank—coming back to them again and again, finding a deeper meaning each time. The other thing that he does very well is include specific detail, for example about the design flaw in the original Jeep or Goring’s airdrop of meat paste or Russian-trained dogs. And in the midst of all this detail he can throw in a stunner of a sentence that makes me catch my breath. (I was going to give an example, but they’re not the same out of context.)
Another story that I particularly liked was “Skin Deep” about Lacey, a teenaged girl working for the summer for some landscapers. Her father is in jail, so she lives with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, “an indefinitely-suspended-without-pay firefighter”. Her mother—a former Amway saleswoman who now sells their furniture in yard sales to get by and has just decided to be a Broadway agent—believes Lacey’s destiny is to be a star and wants to sign her up for acting classes at the community college. However, skeptical Lacey has been making plans, with the assistance of her father’s lawyer, to go to college in Massachusetts. McNally captures the end-of-summer ennui, the difficulty of finding and holding jobs, the reluctant love for family mingled with exasperation. And he brilliantly captures what it’s like to be a teenaged girl getting ready to leave home and starting to see her family with objective eyes.
The last story, too, the title story, affected me deeply, resonating with “Bastogne” and its themes. Shortly after his father’s death, Thomas visits Paris with his wife and their young daughter. Paris is where his wife lived and loved before she returned to the States and met him. I loved the image of the gateway itself, a huge arch in St. Louis, the “gateway to the West”, Thomas’s home town where he returned after failing as a screenwriter in Hollywood and became a real-estate agent. Dreams not just deferred but abandoned. And I had to stop and think about mortality and love and parents and children when Thomas says, “People used to call my father The Colossus; then he died; and eventually, not that far into the future, there will be nobody left alive to remember the things he said and did. But when I was a boy, he explained to me the history of the world . . .”
These are real lives, stories from the heartland. I highly recommend this collection.