Pleasure and Pain
Read the fiction before you read anything else in the latest issue of Shenandoah. These stories cover a lot, from the war in Iraq to a Spiderman obsession to rape and murder in the suburbs. Rapists with varsity letters are on the loose in "BLEEED," by Joyce Carol Oates. She uses colors, especially blood red, to grim effect to show teenaged boys assaulting a preteen girl.The boys come from the neighborhood's upper crust, and they're not shy about it. But the main character, a more timid sort bound for U-Penn, is never directly implicated in a crime until the end of the story. A toddler's killed. It's entirely his fault, except it isn't. He's less a victim of circumstance than of isolation. Fear, secrecy, loneliness--these things fuel atrocities in Oates' compelling narrative.
No one dies in Ha Jin's "Temporary Love." Things are going well enough for the lead characters, Lina and Panlin, as the story begins. They're having a tryst in New York while their spouses await visas in China. Then Lina's husband arrives. He knows about the affair, and he guilts her into working overtime to pay for his MBA classes. Meanwhile Panlin chases an Internet bride living in Kiev. Lina doesn't pity herself, nor does she come away "stronger." She just takes it all in stoically: "Whatever (Panlin) might do, she hoped he wouldn't make a fool of himself." In a world of scarcity and separation, maybe that's all she can hope for. It wouldn't play well on the campaign trail, but it does here.
Irene has a strange obsession in Laura Brodie's "Spiderman Summer." She can't get enough of Tobey Maguire. She rents all of his movies, reads all of his fan sites. She crashes her husband's car while daydreaming of the wide-eyed wonder. Irene's is a pathetic yearning, it's effectively rendered, but it's not quite as unsettling as "Old Man" by Lucy Ferriss, where a man named Scott endures nineteen jobless months. His wife takes extra shifts as a nurse, pushed to the breaking point with resentment. Scott can't find work in the cyber age, and he meets each week with a few middle-aged guys in the same boat. Ferriss strikes the perfect balance between their individual desperation and their solidarity. She also sounds ready to use the R-word, over the objections of the U.S. Treasury.
U.S. Army recruiters may object to some of the content in Brian Van Reet's "The Rooster," a story of a young officer serving in Iraq who does everything he can to inoculate himself from the fear of death. At times it's just not possible: "COMING IN like a huge, angry dragonfly, the volley's final mortar explodes, rattling windows. Feigned Zen indifference is abandoned for rage. I want these shitheads dead--all of them, if necessary." A forced political diatribe would follow in the movie version. Not here, though.
While all five stories are palpable hits, the non-fiction in this issue comes in a mixed bag. Brandon R. Schrand writes an exhaustive family history in "The Bone Road." He begins with his father's abandonment and makes a related discovery after fifteen pages: "I'm a son." Take a number, pal.
Cheryl Dietrich recounts a crash at a U.S. air base in "Flugtag 1988." She does a nice job with the lead-up to a collision that killed dozens at Ramstein Air Base twenty years ago. But she belabors the rather obvious point that it was all quite shocking. Jeff Porter loses his tech trinkets in "On Gadgets." Thieves steal his digital video recorder, leaving him "reduced to the elements of language--nouns, verbs and adjectives" as he chronicles his trip to Sicily. He's better for it, and he clues us in to our better selves. Our analogue essence, so to speak.
In "O Wonderful Son," Paul Zimmer traverses boyhood, adulthood and lots in between, using the women in his life as points of reference. Sounds maudlin, but take heart. Zimmer mixes in plenty of wry humor. He imagines his mother pondering his first teenaged flirtation, and he tells her, "We were breathless and unfulfilled all the time. Yes, mom, it stayed that way." Leon Lewis examines the legacy of Robert Frost in "Famous Long Ago." He reminds us that the poet's oeuvre extends well beyond "The Road Not Taken." It's a vital essay, as Lewis frees an icon from the Coffee Mug Canon.