|Boat dock, Lake Leelanau Narrows|
Too many weeks have gone by, and summer was way too busy. Even now, in September, I’m having trouble finding a good, long stretch of uninterrupted time. (Blackberries to pick, jam to make, grass to mow once more, autumn olive to kill, ongoing household chores (never done), fall events in Northport and at the bookstore, etc., etc.) I’d like to organize myself to write a serious, in-depth book review, but the more time goes by, the more I despair of accomplishing my self-assigned task. Like any good essay, a review needs a jumping-off point, an organizing theme, well-chosen quotations, and a satisfying finish. Absent both theme and starting point, quotations chosen at random do not add up to a review, and they certainly resist summation. But too much time has gone by, and I don’t see a slow period before January, so reader, beware! What follows cannot be called a review! If it were a review, however, it would be a rave.
Valerie Trueblood’s third book, Search Party: Stories of Rescue, is as richly satisfying as her novel, Seven Loves, and her first short story collection, Marry or Burn. Once again she has given us complex characters in situations that feel exactly like life, with all its unexpected twists and turns. The searches and rescues are of all kinds, some literal, some metaphorical. Sometimes, reading one of the stories, I feared turning the page. Tragedy seemed imminent. Most of the time, though, the tragedies that occur in these pages are, if not irreversible, at least – what? Not ordinary, really. I want to say “not sensational,” but is that true, either? Here I am trying to describe specific works of fiction, these stories, by saying what they are not. Maybe better to say what they are? Life-changing. That’s what they are for the characters involved.
The writing in these works of fiction is quietly brilliant. If Valerie Trueblood were an actor, she would be the kind who could throw away a line, in such a casual, realistic, effective manner that audiences would gasp.
Alan snapped the catch of the mess kit in which he had soaked beans all night in their hotel room in Vancouver. He was as pleased with the beans as if he had smuggled them in. At thirty-seven, with plenty of money, Alan still traveled as if he were hitchhiking across Europe. “Sourdough!” He held up a plastic container.
Somehow, though, it seems all wrong to excerpt and frame these lines -- “as pleased with the beans as if he had smuggled them in” – because to do so is to shine an immobilizing spotlight on something that was accomplished in a quick, shadowy split-second, something you might have caught out of the corner of your eye (and later wondered if you’d imagined it) or maybe not have noticed at all, and I have that feeling about pulling any quotations at all out of the context of these stories. Here, in fact, is one about memory and how it does just what I fear in quoting: “Memories had a way of excluding context, growing more and more concrete.” Some people find the “concrete” more true, but is it? Doesn’t it simply become more and more taken as fact, and, because of that, perhaps, more fixed, reified, further somehow from what was, because more fluid and evanescent, closer to truth?
How else, though to convey the mastery of this writer’s work, other than by presenting examples of the writing? Here: A radio show host, traveling to Lourdes, herself having completed treatment for cancer, imagines describing the scene for her radio audience:
“Unorthodox” -- or maybe I should say “orthodox” – “as such a trip seemed when it first occurred to me at the end of chemo, I saw it as something that would perhaps . . .” “Perhaps” is a little clothespin not really sturdy enough, I’m afraid, for the vast wet sheet of the possible that I have to hang from it.
Do you see what I mean? You read those lines and take in a sharp breath and let it out again in a gusty sigh that says “Yes!” and you race on to the lines that follow.
I made note of another passage and now cannot recall in which story it occurs: “She pictures her feelings as a kind of mold....” After this beginning of a quoted line, I had written “that whole paragraph,” telling myself I wanted to quote the paragraph in its entirety. But I am impatient, wanting to get something posted about this book, and anyway it is in the flow of the story that the truth of expression has its home.
The real trouble is that with Search Party, as with other of the most powerful short stories and novels and even works of nonfiction, is that what I want to do is to quote the entire book. What can I say? Buy it yourself. Read Trueblood’s stories. Then, as I’m sure you will, read them again and again. There is a lot to learn about writing – and a lot to learn about life – and a lot to be grateful for -- in this beautifully accomplished volume.
In fields and along roadsides, the first asters are blooming. They are the small, light-colored ones, with the larger, deeper purple yet to come. Cornfields look rich and lush. And of course it’s apple harvest time, too, in the Leelanau.
October 4: I’m coming back to add a couple of links to this post. The first is to The Guardian, whose Emma Keller chose Search Party as the best summer short story collection from the U.S.
The second is to an interview with Valerie Trueblood, and anyone who cares about the writing of fiction will not want to miss this.