By Laura Hulthen Thomas
The title of Kelly Fordon’s new short story collection confidently asserts I Have the Answer, but these thirteen sparkling, insightful stories answer intimate conundrums about love, identity and relationships with ever more complicated questions. Teens on the cusp of adulthood grapple with phantom limbs and the true meaning of exorcism and faith. Vanished husbands, re-imagined as pale imitations of the men they once were, provoke their partners’ scrutiny rather than closure. To their skeptics’ surprise, “crazy” characters who claim to have all the answers actually prove they do. As characters seek peace and acceptance in offbeat, unexpected ways, Fordon reveals that finding the answer more often means asking the right question.
Learning to ask questions rather than live with dead-end answers drives many of the stories’ plots. In the collection’s opening story, “The Shorebirds and the Shaman,” an affluent freelance designer battles a self-imposed isolation after her husband’s untimely death. Fordon deftly choreographs Corinne’s rage and loneliness into humorous moments that pick at her wounds before healing them. When a friend tricks her into attending a weekend of New Age therapy, Corinne’s emotional journey from outrage and skepticism at a shaman’s dubious medium act is both funny and heart-wrenching. The story ends with Corrine’s moving repossession of her life, not by burying her dead, but imagining her husband resurrected through the therapeutic group role play she’d dismissed: “Whatever they’d had…It was worth study.” Corinne’s recovery from acute grief is like the reluctant migration of the Lake Erie shorebirds she and her husband once studied: “It’s the fact that they can’t see across that stymies them…It literally stops them in their tracks until they’re so cold they have no choice but to brave it.”
Some of Fordon’s characters don’t seek to question their lives so much as find a way to tell a different story about both the past and the future. In “Jungle Life,” a young man repeatedly interviews his Alzheimer’s-stricken father about a buddy’s fate during a WWII recon mission, only to hear a new version every time. As the son wonders which version is true, he also comes to realize that picking the truth is more his own choice than his father’s. In “Get a Grip,” an architect whose her husband leaves her for another woman is visited, or rather crashed, by her crazy neighbor. Mary Keane, the neighbor, imagines a coffee klatch with Maura’s husband Howard, Oprah and Thomas Jefferson. “Are we going to participate in the politics of cynicism or the politics of hope?” Mary Keane demands of Maura, who hadn’t yet known she’d been struggling to answer this very question. This comic resurrection echoes the plot of the collections’ first story, but while Corrinne’s role-play revealed what was eternal about her marriage, seeing Howard in the company of his betters prompts Maura to remember that his complaints about her faults had long hidden her desperate wish for him to leave. When Mary Keane pantomimes throwing the imaginary Howard out of her house, Maura holds the door wide open.
Who tells the story, and which version of the truth they offer, are beautifully examined in “Devil’s Proof,” when a Catholic school teen’s fear of Satanic possession collides with her coming of age questions about sex, love, and danger. When Marie learns that the 70s cult classic “The Exorcist” was based on a true story, she worries over the film, which was shot in Georgetown, her home: “I’d grown up with a Catholic fear of the devil, but I had no idea that he could just decide to lodge inside a person against her will.” Her father’s comment that he believes devil possession is “very rare” strikes her as less of a reassurance than a comment on her parents’ fraying marriage. Seeping through the story’s wry, muted humor is a sobering contemplation of the various ways places and people have possessed and are still possessing others. Fordon expertly uses rich details of an historic Georgetown school campus to suggest the conundrums of privilege: “The (Senior) Lodge… was rumored to have sheltered runaway slaves during the Civil War. The leaded glass windows still sported names and dates (the earliest: 1802) etched into the panes with former students’ engagement ring diamonds.” Fordon leaves it to the reader to question whether the names etched with diamonds would use their status to protect, or to oppress. Later in the story, an ambiguous sexual encounter poses more brutal questions about the true meaning of permission and desire, and whether consent is arbitrated by the devil outside of us, or within us.
Throughout the collection, Fordon’s sly humor about middle-class perks—Costco, grocery delivery services, trendy psychotherapy, binge shopping—bind together the women who both rue and rely upon these props. In “Tell Them I’m Happy Now,” a mother of three young kids proves her dedication to home and hearth through hectic renovations and redecorations, including painting her daughter’s bathroom a garish Barbie-pink, complete with a Barbie mural staring down the toilet. Crazy neighbor May Keane proclaims that her mother “…went to the land of Costco, where all of her dreams come true.” These women’s devotion to the comforting, if blinding, pursuit of privilege is comic, but not played for laughs. Fordon neither judges nor questions these material quests and coping mechanisms, but allows the women’s shared experiences of grief, loss, and love to wade through their stuff. With humor, wisdom, and a dash of crazy-making, Fordon’s deft, lyrical writing and gentle yet pointed comedy create endearing, realistic characters looking for the very answers the reader hopes to find.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0814347525/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0
Laura Hulthen Thomas heads the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan’s Residential College, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Witness, Epiphany, The Cimarron Review, and many other literary journals. Her short story collection, STATES OF MOTION was a finalist for a Foreword Reviews Indie Award.