shining the spotlight on short story collections
Press 53, 2012
Last time, when her dad promised to make it up to her, he’d apologized and said he’d run into some strippers. Who could blame him? Strippers or a kid? Misty Blue blamed it on the drugs. She vowed to never do drugs.
In her mother’s room was a long oval mirror. Misty Blue went in there and teased an imaginary audience. She wisped a scarf between her legs. She took her clothes off slowly, seeing the picture she made with each piece she removed, because this was art. She danced to no music. She wanted to keep listening for a limousine, just in case (Misty Blue)
Reading these flash and short stories was like opening a neighbour’s closet and rifling through what I found inside – fake fur jackets, used up bottles of silver nail polish, little kids’ shabby pyjamas, grease-spotted sundresses with dusty hems. Discomfort and fascination compete for the upper hand but ended up augmenting each other to capture my attention and interest. Days after reading, I still have in mind the young woman waiting at the truckstop in the very brief story Stop.
“Grease soaks the ground and she can’t feel it when someone calls her a whore.”
Many of these stories are populated with girls too wise and experienced for their meager years and children repeatedly broken by harrowing circumstances. Their lives and spirits are held together, and conveyed powerfully to the reader, through the force of Neal’s fierce imagination and an unadorned but descriptive prose style.
Often I marveled at the way the characters’ core of humanity survives, particularly in the story Blue Star, which flip-flops with surreal grace between the childhood and almost-adulthood of its protagonist, Maggie:
But then her mother is ill. She stays in bed for days. The Psychologist takes Maggie to the bedroom door to look at her mother lying there, but Maggie can’t go in. He says she might catch what her mother has and die. He tells Maggie her mother is dying and when she does it’ll be just the two of them. Doesn’t she want it to be just the two of them? Doesn’t she want to stay alive and not go with her mother? He asks her over and over until she says, yes. He sits with Maggie on the couch. He shows her pictures of her mother in various states of undress. Isn’t her mother pretty, he asks? Isn’t she sexy?
Neal’s characters rarely experience transformation. They are furnaces burning the coal of their experiences and somehow, they endure. Their comforts come in small, fleeting packages – dogs who warm their pyjamas in their small beds, the flash of a longed-for red car pulling into a driveway.
One or two of the very short pieces, some barely half a page, feel underdeveloped, but the great majority present sharply drawn, significant moments. The more traditional length short stories are, without exception, satisfying reads. Upstairs Boy is heartbreaking and chilling in its account of a boy’s journey through foster care and juvenile crisis-center life.
“For three months now [Carter] hadn’t had a letter. He’d been asking everyone to please make sure [his mother] knew this last address. She hadn’t been able to keep up with where he was. He lived in the Youth Crisis Center, a yellow, three-story building next to an abandoned gas station. The boys at the Center awaited placement or some magical time like the summer in that distant year. Kyle had been kicked out of detention, Dustin dismissed from the state mental hospital. The rest were heading for those very places, or, like Carter, hoping for a new foster home. Someone somewhere was supposed to be making decisions about the future of each.”
Open House draws us into the confusion of a child struggling to understand his fractured family, and who or what his mother is, really.
Of the longer pieces included in this collection, the closing story, Once Upon a Time in Bourbon Street, is outstanding. The world of this story is a living thing, wrapped around this reader like the leather jacket that its main character, Lizzie, wraps around herself to keep warm. Lizzie quickly became a favourite of mine, and if she ever turns up in another of Darlin’ Neal’s stories, I will be more than happy to see her.
“When she closes her eyes she sees her mother’s face peaceful in sleep in that house on Fortification Street, the house with all the roses and the old shiny hardwood floors….”I’m all right,” Lizzie whispers like a prayer her mother and the cat might hear. “Don’t worry. Just leave me alone.” She’s done it now. She’s in New Orleans. She opens her eyes and the sky steadies. Her fear ebbs away.”
Read Trace, a story included in Elegant Punk, here
About the reviewer: Carol Reid lives on the west coast of Canada. She just keeps writing, regardless.