randall brown

This is How He Learned to Love: Stories by Randall Brown

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By Thaddeus Rutkowski

The very brief stories in this collection by the founder of Matter Press are related by theme (many focus on family relationships) and by their consistently surprising points of view. Randall Brown’s poetic descriptions of ordinary occurrences are juiced up, squeezed together, and laid out in passages that open one’s mind to what might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Even the book’s cover art reflects this magnified approach: Over a blank-beige background, we see the enlarged, almost abstract head of a grasshopper or praying mantis whose eye pupils point in different directions.

In the micro story “Deliberately,” near the beginning of the book, the main character (a boy) finds a relic in the ground: a cone-topped beer can. The odd-shaped can provides a link to the past, when the boy’s mother, as a teenager, might have buried the can in the ground as “a time capsule.” Was the boy’s mother a drinker? Possibly. In the present, the boy becomes aware of “a pen of guinea pigs left out in the sun.” Do the neglected pets have anything to do with the lost beer can, with the boy himself? The boy’s mother denies responsibility, but it is implied that she should have watched the animals—and perhaps the boy himself. All of this comes in a “story” that is about eighty-five words long.

If there is a narrative arc in this book, it follows the protagonists/narrators as they move from childhood to adulthood. In “A Slight Adjective Used to Describe a Sound,” the main character has a wife and a daughter, and teaches online. (The piece is prescient in that many college teachers lecture online in these days of quarantine.) The husband/father/teacher goes away to “the sea” for a few days. Here, the main issue arises: Why does Robert Frost characterize the din of waves as “misty” in the line “The shattered waves made a misty din”? (The line comes from the poem “Once by the Pacific,” which is not named here.) The waves, the protagonist thinks, “not the din, should be misty.” The piece ends with an encounter with an unidentified woman who talks to the man, then throws her lit cigar into the water, where supposedly it will make a “rusty sizzle.” The story ends as the mystery of another “misty din,” that of the doused cigar, is about to unravel.

Most of the thirty-seven stories in this collection, which was first runner-up in Sonder Press’s chapbook contest, are less than a page long. But as a result of the interior design (where all pieces start on a right-hand page), the book is ninety-two pages long. This Is How He Learned to Love could be a quick read, but I recommend lingering over the stories. Rereading brings the rewards of discovering new meanings below the chiseled surfaces.

You can find the book here: www.thesonderpress.com

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of seven books, most recently Tricks of Light, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his memoir Guess and Check won an Electronic Literature award for multicultural fiction. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.