Book Review—ROCHELLE ALMEIDA
What makes a Short Story work— and what makes it memorable
Author Tim Tomlinson earned his Bachelor’s degree and his MFA from Columbia University. But, as his collection of short stories entitled This Is Not Happening To You reveals, he received his Ph.D. from the School of Life’s Hard Knocks. To read these stories whose settings cover vast geographical ground from Long Island (where he was born and raised) to New England, from New Orleans to Los Angeles, with the West Indies and the UK throw in for good measure, is to travel through the dark landscape of a mind that has known relentless struggle for survival. Only very thinly disguised as fiction, these strongly autobiographical stories admit entry into the writer’s bruised and battered psyche even as they depict the bravado with which crippling experiences were conquered and transcended. In the hands of a mediocre writer, such material, while remaining compelling, could easily degenerate into morbidity. In those of a master-teller, which is what Tomlinson repeatedly proves himself to be, biographical details coalesce with popular music, lyrics of well-loved folk songs or lines from award-winning poetry to become a purely breathtaking reading sensation. These stories expose the underbelly of places that harbor delinquents, drop-outs and drunks whose fraught lives become our concern as we labor through their relentless hussle to move on.
And so we meet Bonnie Bray in ‘What She Was Calling For’, a story whose sparse style recalls of Raymond’s Carver’s minimalist prose as much as does its title—What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. A recovering alcoholic working through ‘The Steps’ that will liberate her from addiction, she telephones the narrator—himself a recovering from addict—seeking a meeting. Their difficult history, however, leads him to mock her efforts, to goad her even into regressing. From his slightly stronger perch of sobriety, the narrator looks down superciliously upon her struggle, willing her to suffer as he had once done while he’d remained under the combined addictive influence of alcohol and infatuation. Their conversational dance, each step cautiously and meticulously choreographed, keeps the reader on tenterhooks wondering where the encounter will end or, indeed, where it might lead.
The world is full of recovering addicts. Only a few of them have the powers of articulation that the narrator of the title story, ‘This Is Not Happening To You’ can boast. In a staccato round of rapidly-fired phrases, we are given insight into the mind of an alcoholic and his typical Sunday routine in America’s Funville, New Orleans. In a stupor, the narrator, lonely and in despair, befriends a rat—before indignation at the sight of its teeth-marks embedded in his avocado, sole sustenance on a soulless day, resurfaces. Monsieur Rat must be annihilated. But then the narrator sees a kindred spirit mirrored “in the grimace of horror” on the creature’s grotesque face. And the rat lives another day. Like so many of them, this story is creepy is more ways than one.
Empathy with animals is the subject of one of the collection’s most moving stories, ‘Reunion’, in which the narrator recounts his attachment to his German shepherd Wolf who “got into trouble” for being provoked into nipping at a neighbor’s ankles. The nameless ‘he’ of the story (called Cliff in another tale) envisages a farm, a meadow, a field amidst rolling hills, when informed by his father that the dog is being sent “to a good place’. When, after swallowing his endless grief with the prescription pills to which he had become addicted, a reunion with the dog occurs unexpectedly, the narrator, still a boy, finds him at a local pharmacy that he attempts to break in and enter. Horrified at the state to which his beloved companion has been reduced, the boy is determined to save him, only to be thwarted, in the cruelest way possible. Such stories leave the reader horrified, aghast and reeling in their rawness.
Unable to leave their troubled pasts behind, the protagonists of Tomlinson’s stories are bitterly haunted as adults by regret, a desire for revenge, maybe even a hankering after closure when their painful childhoods collide with daily life. A psychotic conversation between an adult son and his elderly mother in ‘Just Tell Me Who It Was’ keeps the reader as stressed as the old woman who is insistently forced into confronting her husband’s infidelity. Tomlinson’s deftness of touch captures, with scary accuracy, the details of such an exchange–tactics used by the woman to evade accusing questions and the determination of her son to get to the bottom of his suspicions. Perhaps he believes that assigning blame will permit him to make peace with his torment and maybe even make peace with the mother who tolerated a cheating, abusive husband. It is characters such as these that Tomlinson depicts: haunted by the ghosts of their disturbed pasts, happiness eludes them in their presents.
Indeed, aside from crafting stories that repel as much as they fascinate, Tomlinson proves himself to be a skillful editor. His protagonists depict a vast appetite for sex, drink, drugs and danger; but there is not an extraneous word in their expression, not a spare sentiment to be found. The author fires straight from the shoulder and slays the reader with every shot. Just when one has digested the full impact of one plot, one is bombarded by another—but in the quietest, most sinister, most devastating fashion possible. Tomlinson’s skill as a narrator is akin to that of a thespian whose fullest impact is most felt when his lines are whispered.
Read these stories not only to understand how the hunted Jean Valjean might have felt in Victor Hugo’s masterpiece or how Gregor Samsa felt when transformed into a giant insect in Kafka’s greatest work. But also read these stories to discover what makes a short story work—and what makes it memorable.
This Is Not Happening To You—Short Stories by Tim Tomlinson Winter Goose Publishing, North Hampton, New Hampshire, 2017 Paperback, $14.99