A Handful of Gems in This Theme Issue
In the introduction to Salamander’s latest edition—Vol 17, No. 2, the All-Fiction issue—Senior Editor Peter Brown says he’d been feeling compelled to make a statement about the direction of fiction that Salamander publishes. He writes, “I get lost at ‘statement’ and ‘direction,’ but with fiction, when it’s good, I feel I know what I mean, even if saying so comes close to the Supreme Court’s elucidation of ‘obscenity’: you know it when you see it.” Brown casts a wide net in this statement of purpose, which is why it may be surprising that the majority of the stories are more alike than they are different. “The stories here reflect, to a large extent, two of the primary debates ranging in America at the moment,” he writes. “War and health care.”
While both of these topics present a vast amount of space for differentiation—for alternative definitions to the ones we’re more familiar with, even—I admit to having felt a bit wary of an all-fiction issue that promised to revisit a lot of the same spaces. I wondered, too, whether there wasn’t an inherent paradox in wanting to “make a statement about the direction of Salamander’s fiction” and collecting twelve stories that might have the tendency to somehow overlap in a reader’s consumption of the issue. And yet there was such a sense of confidence in Brown’s introduction that I set aside these initial concerns and got to the stories themselves.
Having read through all of them—and revisiting the three that struck me most a few times more—I’m left thinking two things. One is that there are some true gems collected here, stories that are well-crafted, expertly-handled, and important. These are stories that humbled me as a writer, sending me back to my own stories to work harder, to strive toward even better storytelling. And that’s a testament to the writers themselves, and Salamander’s staff for selecting them.
The other major impression, however, is that I’m not sure this issue succeeds in providing any kind of insight into Salamander’s taste for fiction. This would not have been much of a complaint had it not been for the declarative nature of Brown’s introduction, which caused me to view the issue as exemplary of something larger at Salamander.
The problem, at least for me, existed in the concern I addressed previously, which is the similar subject matter being covered here. When I pick up a lit mag, and even more so when a story I’ve written appears in one, my hope is that each piece will be holistically different than the last. I want the throughline of a litmag to be quality—in style, in voice, in vision—but nothing else. [Thus my deep-seated aversion to themed issues, and, for that matter, themed parties.] And while there’s a part of me that admires Salamander for publishing stories that are interrogating and prodding at issues of contemporary concern, I was disappointed by the lack of variety in the approach these stories took to doing that work.
Take, for example, two stories in the middle of the book— “Orca” by Austin Duffy and “Every Purpose Under Heaven” by Albert Somma. That there is but one story sandwiched betwixt these two tales only serves to further enhance the problem—they’re fundamentally the same story. Both have a first-person male protagonist: a doctor who, in the wake of trauma he feels responsible for, turns inward to find answers. In “Orca,” the narrator is treating a young child with aggressive cancer. “Every Purpose Under Heaven”’s doctor has just lost a patient to a sudden aneurism. Somma has his doctor hit the road, for reasons unclear, to a cabin in Vermont, where he’s left with only his thoughts and the rumor of a bear wandering nearby his property. Once settled into the cabin, and after a mostly-meaningless dinner scene with the neighbors, the narrator asks, “What have the living but their memories and myths?” It’s a line with built-in resonance in its phrasing, but didn’t seem to connect to the story in any true, important way. Similarly, Duffy’s doctor leaves the hospital and meanders through town, until he’s by a bridge looking down into the water, where it’s rumored a killer whale was recently seen. At the story’s close, he imagines what it might be like to encounter the orca in all of its out-of-place, gargantuan glory, but an inventive interior landscape does not a satisfying nor purposeful ending make. [A look at the contributors page shows that Duffy is a practicing doctor, and Somma is a recipient of the Edward J. Rehberg Memorial Prize in poetry.]
But where these and stories like “Who Will Save Batman?” and “Loch Ness Bigfoot” disappointed—due to familiar premises and thinly-drawn protagonists—a story like Siobhan Fallon’s “Tips for a Smooth Transition” shines twice as bright. If her name sounds familiar, as it did to me when I first encountered it, it’s probably because her collection You Know When the Men Are Gone was released last year to much acclaim. Reading her story in Salamander reminded me to move Fallon’s collection to the top of my to-read list. “Tips for a Smooth Transition” tracks the remarkably-drawn Evie, a wife struggling in her marriage to Colin, who has recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan. The premise makes room for some pretty dangerous pitfalls—overwriting and overstating, sentimentalizing and sappy sentences—but Fallon has such a firm grasp on storytelling and structure that she avoids all of these. The narrative is punctuated with excerpts from the titular fictitious book that Evie has clearly been reading while awaiting her husband’s return, and what works best about the story is the dichotomy between how simple the advice seems in theory [“Be patient. Wait for your soldier to share his/her experiences”] and how wholly inapplicable it is in practice. And that says nothing of the prose itself, which strikes the perfect balance of show and tell:
“She keeps a mouthful of wine on her tongue while Colin speaks, as if afraid the sound of her swallowing will stop him. She wants her husband to keep talking; she wants to know about the entire life he lived without her.”
My favorite story in the issue is Mary O’Donoghue’s “Sand,” a story so strange and tender that it dwarfed most of the other stories in its shadow. To say too much about the plot would be to ruin the charm of discovering it, so instead I’ll simply praise the playful language, the innovative voice and structure, and the creation of one of the finest narrators I’ve encountered in recent memory, a narrator who admits that he has “tugged the corners of the story”—a phrase so wonderful I wished immediately that I’d written it myself.
These stories from Fallon and O’Donoghue—and “Step Off at Ten” from Jenn Hollmeyer, which, despite an unsatisfying, easy ending, was worth reading twice— do not necessarily make the issue itself as important as Brown seems to promise on the first page, nor did they coalesce with the other stories into some clear-cut statement of purpose for Salamander, but they are so good as to be well worth the sticker price.