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Monday, November 15, 2010


“When she was twenty, Francie Madden shot and killed her husband Gary.”

That’s the first sentence of the first story (“Amends”) in Valerie Trueblood’s new collection, Marry or Burn: Stories, so fasten your seatbelt and take a deep breath, because it’s going to be a rollercoaster of a ride. What can the rest of life possibly hold for a young woman after she goes to prison for murdering her husband? Other stories pose other questions: What does it mean to say that one man or woman is “the love of someone’s life”? How do some people “get over” losses and betrayals, and, if some do, why doesn’t everyone? Have you ever loved anyone enough to kill a bear with your own hands and an ax to save your beloved’s life?

Each story brings a new cast of characters to the book’s theme, each character contributing a complete new history. Marry or Burn is not a one-family house of a book but a multi-generational country, the author a Scheherazade whose powers of invention never falter.

For example, there is a doctor who began an affair with one of his patients, a Russian violinist, only to find his life reshaped by her values and history, so very foreign to his own:
After two years of a dizzying rhythm of jealousy and reconciliation, Stark had arrived at a new stage with her, in which the baring of reasons for their trespasses against each other went on in a kind of calm. His, now, were merely rote flirtation, undertaken more to retaliate than for any interest another woman could have for him; hers had more weight: confessed cravings, late-night phone calls, disappearances. He was outdone in what his ex-wife had called his ‘ways.’ Now he had no ways, only the relics of an old habit.

And then, unexpectedly, she dies.
A shame came over him. In her harshness, her casual insults, Katya had been right: to be an American was to be a fool. To hear no warning. To have no idea what was wrong with you. To be overtaken by events you had never foreseen, and to smile. Others in the world did not smile.

What will Stark do now with the rest of his life? In this story, “Trespass,” as in all the rest, there is no map for the road ahead, and we never know where Trueblood is taking us until we arrive.

Some moments are heart-stabbing.
What is love? What is it? What is it? How can it be what it seems to be, nothing? A vacancy, an invisibility, a configuration of the mind. But with a weight, perceptible to the body.

Others are small and light.
The way Becca swung the car seat it could have held the groceries [rather than a baby]. ... “This is Justin,” Becca said solemnly, like a child introducing a doll that you will have to pretend is real.

I don’t know how to convey accurately a sense of the stories in this book, since excerpts taken out of context, however magical, can be only a pale shadow of those same words encountered in their organic home. Having so recently read a novel with one of the characters on death row (The Crying Tree), the first sentence of the first story, the one I opened this post with, caught me up instantly. As I read from one story to the next, however, it was the same with each one, with all the men, women and children, all the stories within stories, all the mysteries and surprises, the trajectories, reversals, new beginnings.

Here’s the bad part: Trueblood is such a masterful story-teller that I ask myself why I ever sit down at a keyboard myself. Really, who am I kidding?

All right, so I read the whole book, wrote up what you just read, and then I thought, I'd better go back and re-read one of the stories to make sure the writing is really that good, and to be fair about it, rather than page through looking for one I might call one of my "favorites," I opened the book at random and landed by chance on the story called "Luck." Okay, that would be my test case. The young male protagonist is returning home after what seems to have been a psychotic break sent him to a mental hospital or clinic far from home. While he was away, his widowed mother gave birth to a baby whose father, a married man, was the boy's high school coach. --But you see, I'm explaining all this in a very dull, expository way, and that is not at all the way Trueblood gives her characters' backgrounds. She does it lightly, deftly, with a sentence here, a word or a phrase there, so that the past is revealed to us in the same way as the present, with nothing overworked or overdescribed. We don't get the whole picture all at once (but we wouldn't get it all at once, anyway); by the end of the story, however, all the pieces have dropped quietly into place. There is no confusion. Instead, the questions we do have are ones we would have about people in our own lives because, in the space of only a few pages, the world of these characters has been made fully real to our imagination.

From the fiction writer's mind to the reader's mind. This is powerful magic.

I come back to this post on Wednesday morning, November 17, to make an addition. It concerns me that at least one person was frightened away from the book by my review, when I wrote only to encourage readers for Trueblood’s work. But then another person, who saw the book at Dog Ears, was frightened off by the title of the collection, and I realized I should have included something about the title in my review. There it was, on my mind at 5 a.m., so I got up to search the house for my old Lutheran confirmation Bible (closer at hand is the French Bible my father gave me) and quickly found the passage I was looking for. It’s in I Corinthians, and the passage is Chapter 7, verse 9. Paul has been writing to his distant flock, taking them to task for the sin of fornication and urging them to be celibate, as he is, but he realizes this is a hard sell. Speaking to the unmarried and the widowed, then, he counsels, “But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than burn.” To be human is to have passions, and it is better for these passions to find lawful expression than to be perverted.

Ironic that Paul—St. Paul, if you will--wrote as he did in the belief that he was living in the “last days,” that the world was to end so soon that it should not be impossible for true believers to hold out and deny their passions for the little time remaining. He was a harsh judge, too. It was Paul, not Jesus, who urged believers to put sinners away from them. (Jesus, you will recall, reminded his listeners that none of them were without sin.) Paul’s opinion of women—well, I won’t let myself get sidetracked into that!

Here’s what Paul was saying. The best course is to “contain,” to control your passions by denying them (“For I would that all men were even as I myself” [verse 7]: i.e., You should all be like me and do as I do!), but the worst course is to be led by the passions into the sin of fornication, aince fornicators, like all sinners, will burn in hell. For the unsaintly, therefore, those who can’t measure up to Paul’s example, the choices come down to two: Marry or burn.

I’m willing to lay odds that Valerie Trueblood doesn’t see the dilemma as that simple. Part of what these stories reveal is what most adults have already learned: one may marry and still burn with passion.


Gerry said...

I think I might be scared to read this book.

I see you read Sherman Alexie's latest. Curious what you thought.

P. J. Grath said...

Don't be scared to read MARRY OR BURN. I know the title is scary, but if you can read Sherman Alexie--who is brilliant AND who can also be a very scary writer!--you certainly won't have nightmares over Valerie Trueblood's stories. She is an honest writer but not, I would say, bleak or grim. Maybe I focused on the more difficult narrative situations: murder, death, mental illness. I should have been more aware of that. But no, don't be scared and do read the book.

Anonymous said...

Marry or Burn sounds really good, I think I'm going to check it out. And I sure know what you mean about masterful story-telling making you wonder why you ever try writing yourself...I have that feeling a lot when I read.

P. J. Grath said...

And yet, Maiya, don't you also feel, when you are reading masterful writing, not jealousy or envy but gratitude? It's strange, because one would think another writer or aspiring writer would be smoldering in encounters like these, but no, I find myself just thrilled. When I run into inferior writing that somehow found a publisher, it's a different story: that pisses me off!

P. J. Grath said...
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