by Valerie Trueblood
Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2016
Valerie Trueblood’s writing has called elegant, and the word is apt, but her stories also possess a decidedly feral quality. Found earlier in her nonlinear novel, Seven Loves (2007), as well as in her previous collection of short stories, Search Party (2013), wildness comes to the fore in this new volume, Criminals: Love Stories.
In this new book, within the most ordinary family or inside a quiet older woman’s heart or deep in the past of a gentle and generous young man run subterranean currents of violence. But if we are surprised, we should not be (except for the specifics of each story given us by Trueblood’s imagination and craft), for there is real life in these fictions. Here, as in the best of novels and short stories, reality -- the ambiguity of surfaces and the hiddenness of truth -- is the source of the writing’s power.
The collection’s stories range in length from two to 37 pages. In some, action unfolds chronologically for the most part, while in others readers are quickly transported from present to past, where lengthy flashbacks set the stage to explain the present to which we eventually, if briefly, return. In all the stories, as whenever we meet someone who is at first a stranger, it is only gradually, one puzzle piece at a time, that we can form -- and then correct and re-form, sometimes repeatedly -- a picture of who these people might be.
In “Skylab,” set in Malaysia, an American doctor’s wife finds herself doubting her old family legend that she, the only daughter, was protected by a magic spell. In the Koran study group where she meets with other foreign women, she notes the moment “when the planned topic would wilt of its own accord like a parachute that had made it to earth,” and at her own cocktail party she wonders why there are so many people she can’t stand in her life now. In the story's present, Skylab is falling to earth. Where will it land? On the innocent or the guilty? And which is she, and how did she come to land in this strange place?
Another young married woman, Shannon, in “Kisses,” puts together a business plan and persuades the bank to loan money to her and her husband, a veteran of the fighting in Afghanistan. She had to see the loan officer by herself.
Garth looked good to the bank. The military, the jobs in high school. Knowing how to lay sod and bed stone looked good, she could tell, despite the fact that the man behind the desk spent the whole time studying her, up and down.
She remembers the way her husband had been in high school.
A boy born to kiss finds that out the way you might realize you can draw, or do math. His ways come naturally to him.
What became of that boy, now so silent and removed, perhaps a container of potential violence? Can he even be trusted with a dog?
I rationed my reading of this book to one story per morning, not wanting to rush from one to the next, losing sight of each in the one that followed, but instead giving myself the luxury of a longer experience -- and also giving each story its due consideration. So it was Sunday when I reached “Sleepover,” perfect for that long, quiet morning.
The story “Sleepover,” the longest in the book, felt the most like a film or a stage play. Like others in the collection, it employs flashbacks, but there is a large cast of characters in the present, onstage, as it were, and things keep happening, one thing after another, the situation continually in flux. Yet the action never becomes comic or even hectic. The author is in control through every line.
Here is the setup: A grandmother recovering from heart surgery has come to visit her daughter and granddaughter. The granddaughter celebrates her 14th birthday, and the following night, after her mother leaves town on business, she has a slumber party with four girlfriends, chaperoned by her visiting grandmother and the Cambodian housekeeper. A teenage boy breaches the home security with the help of the granddaughter, but later the expensive system is tripped, bringing onto the scene the bodyguard of one of the girls, followed by two city policemen. Who is in danger and from whom? Assaults come from both expected and unexpected quarters, and new evidence casts a changing light on all present. (Cham, the housekeeper, has her own horrific background, as does the uninvited boy.) Time, meanwhile, folds upon itself, bringing past and present together.
(No spoilers! You have to read it yourself. I think it is the necessarily careful pace of the grandmother, who must guard her still-recovering heart, that serves to contain the action, but I'll need to re-read the story again to test my hypothesis.)
One of the most surprising pieces in the book declines to be called a story at all. In “Novel of Rose,” the author gives a sketch of what we would learn about a set of characters if a novel were to be written about them. Four pages, inconclusive – and yet leaving haunting images in its wake.
Trueblood’s accomplishments in Criminals: Love Stories will not surprise readers of her previous books. They, like I, will have been eager for new stories from this gifted writer, and now the new stories are here. What a glorious gift in bleak midwinter!