By Charles Rammelkamp
The characters in Edward J. Delaney’s stories are all trying to figure out who they are, how they fit in. “Writer Party,” an amusing story about self-absorbed writers hobnobbing at a cocktail gathering, begins, “I’m not really a writer; it’s just that I write.” And again, in the chapter of the novella, The Big Impossible, called “Buried Men,” the narrator, who more than once observes, “I was used to being invisible,” recounts a conversation with another itinerant worker. “We know you,” the man says, “The tall guy. The one who used to work with is. The one with the leather jacket,” each statement underscoring the ultimate unknowability of any of us. Home after the cocktail party, the narrator of “Writer Party” observes in conclusion: “I keep trying to convince myself that I’m not actually a writer.”
And more often than not, at the heart of the question, who am I? is a sense of guilt. In the first story, “Clean,” narrated in the second person, the protagonist spends his whole life with the secret that he killed another boy when he was sixteen locked in his skull. How often has he wanted to confess? After years, when it looks like his companion might tell the truth, “you were giddy that the secret might come out.” As the former munchkin from The Wizard of Oz, whom the protagonist of The Big Impossible encounters in a motel in Kansas, observes, “Living like you’re comfortable with what life deals you, that’s the big impossible sometimes.”
Indeed, the protagonist of “Street View” is very uncomfortable with his origins; possibly ashamed of his social status as a child, from a broken home, he collects academic degrees and becomes a hot shot professor at Harvard, puts distance between who he is now and who he was then. He is thrown off his game by a girlfriend he meets at UCLA, Estelle, who seems to intuit his origins. When he dumps her, “Not unexpected” she said. “Because you know that I know.” Spooked, he asks her what it is she knows, and her reply: “”You know that, too.”
David, the protagonist of the story by the same name, a school shooter, always picked on by the popular kids, likewise feels “invisible,” evaluates other kids as characters in a video game. Only at the end, when he acts out with a gun at school, is arrested and put in prison, does he see that he is “not invisible any longer.” But he has been “reduced to being a single entity, the least of what he was.” He feels he’s more than the freak people take him to be, but the story ends, “he tried to imagine who he might have thought he actually was.”
Many of these stories take place in New England. The novella House of Sully that makes up the middle section of the book and the bulk of narrative, is a first-person account from the perspective of a teenage boy in a provincial Irish Catholic family in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in the tumultuous year of 1968. Jarred is trying to come to grips with the world. Only a boy of ten when JFK was assassinated, by the time Bobby Kennedy is shot, he’s on the verge of adulthood and coming to terms with politics, Vietnam, the Prague Spring, integration (Dorchester is becoming more black), even fashion. Air-conditioning, credit cards, are new. His parents’ “incorrigible squareness.” The bell-bottom trousers that he covets and which horrify his parents are at the tender heart of this story. His mother, a good Irish housewife, suddenly wants a job of her own and out her marriage with Sully, a self-employed house painter. In August, Jarred and his father “sat down that night to watch the Democratic Convention in a way one might have The Friday Night Fights.” Mayor Daley’s Chicago.
In the midst of these upheavals, Jarred is very much trying to understand who he is and where his destiny lies. Should he drop out of school? He’s suddenly in the minority and what good is “education,” anyway? In a final section set in 2001, when he comes back home to bury his father, the results of his decisions in that critical year are made manifest. And the mystery of the bell-bottom trousers that he was sure his parents had stolen and destroyed is solved!
In contrast to the first two sections, the third section, the novella, The Big Impossible, takes place out west, in the plains states. The protagonist doesn’t seem so much to be trying to understand who he is as trying to forget who he was, to erase his presence, start all over. It’s 1959, and he’s headed west. “I was living my life in small cycles, the way a man crossing a tough river thinks only of the next rock to grab.”
But even he, toward the end of the narrative, in older age, settles down with the single mother of a drunken sluttish girl, with whom he “adopts” the slut’s offspring, a kid named Bitsy. “I’d learned how not to be noticed,” he observes, summing up his life thus far, “how to make myself an ignored man.”
Only, guilt plagues the nameless narrator of this novella in the end, too, inevitable as sunrise.
There is a real depth of feeling in these stories, all of which follow lives from their beginnings to their ends. “And then, in old age, the reckoning,” as he writes in “My Name is Percy Atkins.” These stories resonate with the reader, long after putting the book down.
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.