Awful Things Happening
Two Story Collections examine Maine's dark side.
Mainers are particularly aware of the past, of the history that surrounds them, and of their ghosts. Stephen King writes of this state's specters in one way; two new story collections set in Maine find ghosts of another kind, in the traces the past leaves upon the present. Coincidentally, or not, both Jason Brown in Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work (Open City Books, New York, New York; paperback; 284 pages; $14.) and Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories (Random House, New York, New York; hardcover; 288 pages; $24.95) use the phrase "an awful thing happened" in their fine collections, and each deals with the awful things in very different ways.
Characters in Jason Brown's book, beware. The title of the book, taken from fire-and-brimstone preacher Cotton Mather, is dead serious, and it hints at the darkness within its pages. The Maine of this book is familiar in its lakes and its beauty, but the L.L. Bean catalog's cheeriness is nowhere to be seen in its painful psychological landscape. The stories are centered in or around an imaginary Maine town called Vaughn, somewhere close to Monmouth. In the title story, a small town during a festival becomes, after sunset, one of the layers of hell. A boy's mother warns him away from one Eddie Small, who is dangerous, perhaps the devil himself, yet who promises to take the suffering narrator "to the mouth of God."
Many of these stories delve deep within the mind of a character who is out of touch with reality, often leading to a sense of disorientation for the reader. In the story "North," a teenage girl hitches a ride on a boxcar north to find her runaway brother. Upon her return, her ailing grandmother wakes her up early the next morning saying, "An awful, awful thing has happened." The awful thing is a horrifying fantasy the grandmother has had that rings of a deeper truth, and leaves us, along with the main character, lost somewhere in the limbo between dreams and waking. By the time we get to the last story in the collection, "Afternoon of the Sassanoa," and hear the father suggest to his son that they go for a quick afternoon sail, we want to shout "No! Don't go!" But we know they will, and we have the certain knowledge that disaster will follow. In sharp-edged prose that reveals the compelling pull of what is just below consciousness, these remarkable stories bring alive the dangerous legacy of the past as it pushes its way into our present.
The sixth story in Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge opens: "An awful thing happened to the Kitteridges on a chilly night in June," articulating a similarly ominous warning for the characters' well-being. In fact, many of the people that inhabit this book are - as in Brown's book - depressed, neurotic, or unbalanced. However, in Strout's book, redemption through self-knowledge - though hard-earned, and often at the last possible moment - seems more of a possibility.
Several of these stories evoke Alice Munro's stories, as family members or strangers find the gesture to devastate a fragile life, or to save one. We are brought to the heart of loves both perverse and kind and watch people struggle to live with their unruly, large selves. Throughout it all remains the towering and enigmatic figure of Olive Kitteridge, reappearing in various aspects - harsh, cold, irrational, tormented, regretful, and deeply loving - and finally as complex a person as any we have met, and as alive.
Like true New Englanders, the people in this collection don't offer up their warmth to strangers easily, but as I made my way into the book I found myself reading with the intensity and interest I would bring if I was reading a book about my neighbors. Like Amy and Isabel and Abide with Me, Strout's previous novels, this book gives the sensation of traveling on a graceful and absorbing journey into the center of another person's life. If every story doesn't end gracefully, the book as a whole comes to a resounding and beautiful conclusion.
Each of these collections captures something of Maine's character, and each makes this reader feel as if her life has been enlarged in spite of - or at times because of - the awful things that happen.
The first installment in the Windjammer Mystery Series, Rigged For Murder (Durban House Press, Dallas; paperback; 205 pages; $14.95) is Jenifer LeClair's debut novel. Set on a fictitious boat, The Maine Wind, on an early season cruise, this sleuth mystery follows Brie Beaumont, a policewoman, on leave due to post-traumatic stress syndrome, and the handsome Captain John DuLac as they struggle to unravel an on-board murder that puts them both in danger.
- By: Patricia O'Donnell