short fiction review

The Short Stories of Tolstaya

porch

By Ray Greenblatt

Tatyana Tolstaya is from the noble and intellectual Tolstoy family. She was born and educated in St. Petersburg, then spent many years in the U.S. teaching. On her return to Russia she hosted a very successful interview show on TV. The first book she wrote—On the Golden Porch (1987)—is what I will write about. I found the two most outstanding characteristics were her startling imagery and raucous sense of humor.

IMAGERY

Tolstaya has a marvelous ability to bring children alive with all their idiosyncrasies.  “Flus would scream and bang at my ears, banging on red drums, surrounding me from eight sides and, swirling wildly, project a delirious film, always the same: a wooden honeycomb filling up with three-digit numbers.” (7, LOVE ME, LOVE ME NOT) She does not deny a child’s imagination: ”The children couldn’t shut their eyes at night, sitting up like white columns in their beds.” (122, DATE WITH A BIRD)

And yet, a sadness invaded them and could stay with them for life. A boy loses his grandfather: “Surfacing from the magical bottom of childhood, from the warm, radiant depths, we open our chilled fist in the cold wind—and what have we brought up with us besides sand?” (49, ON THE GOLDEN PORCH)“His soul was boiled like egg white hanging in clumps on the trees rushing toward him; sour sorrow filled his mouth.” (128, DATE WITH A BIRD)  The child can also pity others: “Lord, the world is so frightening and hostile, the poor homeless, inexperienced soul huddling in the square in the night wind.” (13, LOVES ME, LOVES ME NOT)

Under the oppression of Communism no one gets away unharmed emotionally,

women and men alike. “Rimma cracked—she looked around and saw that time kept flowing on, yet the future still hadn’t arrived.” (107, FIRE AND DUST) “Life had gone and the voice of the future was singing for others.” (112, FIRE AND DUST) “Thousands of years, thousands of days, thousands of translucent impenetrable curtains fell from the heavens, thickened, turned into solid walls, blocked roads, and kept Alexandra Ernestovna from going to her beloved, lost in time.” (35, SWEET SHURA) This image says it all: “Life had shown its empty face, its matted hair and sunken eye sockets.” (113, FIRE AND DUST)

Yet, moments of joy and love do exist. “His words glistened with winy sparkle. He led her to a restaurant and the crowd parted for them, and the coat check took her raiments as if they were the magical swan feathers of a fairy bather who had come from the heavens to a small forest lake. The columns emitted a soft marble aroma, and roses floated in the dim lighting. Vassily Mikhailovich was almost young, and Isolde was like a wild silvery bird, one of a kind.” (68, THE CIRCLE) And dreams can sometimes bode good: “Sleep came, invited him into its loopholes and corridors, made dates of secret stairways, locked the doors and rebuilt familiar houses.” (179, PETERS)

But memory fails. “Only a trace of her voice in my head, incorporeal, seeming to come from the black jaws of the telephone receiver.” (141, SONYA) “Now the backs of the seated people are translucent like gauze, and with frightening speed, their laughter falls to pieces, recedes in the distance—catch it if you can.” (141, SONYA) “How restlessly the transparent, tamed shadows of our imagination scurry when the noises and smells of real life penetrate into their cool, foggy world. (22, OKKERVIL RIVER)

Again we feel depressed. “The rain, darkness, and window-bending wind reflected the white solemn face of loneliness.” (17, OKKERVIL RIVER)  A person dies. “The yellow dog gently closed his eyes and left through the snowflakes up the starry  ladder to the black heights, carrying away the trembling living flame.” (49, ON THE GOLDEN PORCH) “Life had begun to turn its not-good side toward Pavel.” (131, SWEET DREAMS, SON) “Peters sat with his leftovers, as immobile as a suitcase.” (189, PETERS)

Children, women, men all find life at times hopeless, destructive. And yet, some weather through it all.  “Peters smiled gratefully at life—running past, indifferent, ungrateful, treacherous, mocking, meaningless, alien—marvelous, marvelous, marvelous.” (192, PETERS)

HUMOR

It is fairly easy for a professional author to come up with some imagery. However, not every writer can pull off humor. I feel it must be built into the nervous system. Tolstaya has that ability too. In HUNTING THE WOOLY MAMMOTH she shows it through the character of Zoya. She puts on airs: “She opened her lips only a millimeter to taste the profiteroles in chocolate sauce, pretending for some intellectual reason that it wasn’t very tasty.” (52) She poses again: “Her face was supposed to reflect the fleeting nuances of her complex spiritual life, like exquisite sadness or some refined reminiscence.” (53)

She doesn’t really love the man she is trying to capture. She hates the great out-of-doors: “Among offensively hearty strangers bawling cheerfully over their dinner made of pea concentrate.” (54) He just won’t play the game she expects him to: ”But this one comes on his own, gets up close, grazes, plucking at the grass, rubbing his side against the wall, napping in the sun, pretending to be tame. Allows himself to be milked! While the pen is open on all four sides.” (59)

What she wants is to be worshipped: “Oh, they would have sculpted her soul, her pain, all the folds of her blanket the right way, they would have sculpted her and then fixed it up on tippy top of a dizzying, lacy cathedral, at the very top, and the photo would be in close up: Zoya. Detail. Early Gothic.” (60)

In THE CIRCLE a man is married but takes his wife for granted. He sees her in a hair salon: “My God—long wires were attached to a reddened, albeit very happy head, with protruding diodes, triodes, and resistors.” (63) Women love clothes: “A cow gives birth in suffering so you can have shoes; a lamb is sheared screaming so you can warm yourself with its fleece.” (64) Women love make up: “Your pink cheeks come from boxes of flying dust, your smiles from golden containers with strawberry filling, your smooth skin from tubes of grease, your gaze from round transparent jars.” (64)

However, “you don’t pick wives: they simply appear out of nowhere by your side, and you’re struggling in fine netting, bound hand and foot; hobbled and gagged.” (65) He admits that they teach you many things but are they important. “How to clean spoons, and the comparative physiology of meatballs and patties; he knew by heart the grievously brief lifespan of sour cream.” (65) Some foods he found ugly: “In the face of annual death nature gets scared, turns around, and grows head down, giving birth in the final moments to coarse, harsh, clumsy creatures—the black dome of radish, the monstrous white nerve of horseradish, the secret potato cities.” (68)

He wants to escape. “Sometimes he wanted to be born a fiery southern youth; or a medieval alchemist; or the daughter of a millionaire; or a widow’s beloved cat; or a Persian king.” (65) Or even have an affair. “Once, dropping off sheets at the laundry, Vassily stared into the blossoming clover of cotton expanses, and noticed that the seven-digit notation sewn onto the northeast resembled a telephone number; he secretly called, and was graciously welcomed, and began a boring joyless affair with a woman named Klara.”(66)

He kept searching for the answers to life. Perhaps a Rubik’s cube: “Spent weeks twisting and twisting its creaking movable facets, until his eyes grew red, waiting in vain for the light to another universe to shine at last from the window.” (73) “He spent hours standing on his head with his legs crossed in someone’s apartment near the railroad station, between two unshaven, also upside-down engineers, and the rumble of the trains outside the house speeding into the distance shook their upraised striped socks.” (74)

Plot is limited in these stories, mostly no more than vignettes. However, the characters are 3-dimensional and varied. It is primarily the imagery that makes every page sparkle. And the humor makes us laugh at human foibles, often with tears in our eyes.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Golden-Porch-Tatyana-Tolstaya/dp/0679728430

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).

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The Big Impossible by Edward J. Delaney

imposs

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.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Big-Impossible-Novellas-Stories/dp/1885983743/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=The+Big+Impossible+by+Edward+J.+Delaney&qid=1572174333&sr=8-1

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.