Voices of Maine
The plan was to sit down with this collection of stories, a pen, and some paper so I could read and make notes: quotable descriptions of Maine settings, memorable characters, chunks of dialogue that rang particularly true. But in the end, when I closed Contemporary Maine Fiction (published by Down East Books, Camden, Maine; hardcover; 296 pages; $25) on the last story, "Slow Monkeys" by Jim Nichols, I hadn't written a word.
Not that there was nothing notable in this anthology, edited by the poet and essayist Wesley McNair.It was just that each of the fourteen stories was so captivating — some powerfully, some poignantly, some oddly but irresistibly so — that as I slipped into the world of each work I quickly forgot my assignment. And when I came up for breath, moving from Lily King to Richard Ford, Debra Spark to Stephen King, the next story beckoned.
A glance at the watch. An admonition to read just one more. And off I'd go again.
That is the test of an anthology. The best ones are read start to finish. Spotty ones are like a CD that has you hitting the skip button every other track.
There's nothing to skip in this collection of stories, some by Maine writers who are household names (Stephen King, Richard Russo, Carolyn Chute) and some by master storytellers who have been more quietly practicing their craft. The settings range from rural western Maine to Portland, from the North Woods to Florida orange groves; characters include Russo's Hollywood sophisticates on Monhegan, and Elaine Ford's slow-witted small-towner who may not be so dumb after all.
These characters and others ring true in the worlds each writer has created. The anthology opens with Monica Wood's "Ernie's Ark," about an on-strike mill worker who builds an ark in his yard as his cancer-stricken wife awaits death in a hospital room. The ark is to be Ernie's entry in a competition for installations announced by the art department at a local college. In the end it is his naiveté that is Ernie's gift. He has the ark photographed as he holds his wife, come home to die, on the gangplank. "She weighed nothing," Woods writes, "his big-boned girl all gone to feathers."
It's a wonderful phrase used to draw a memorable character. Without reopening the book I can recall several such passages. In Lily King's story, "Five Tuesdays in Winter," a curmudgeonly, divorced bookstore owner has this exchange with his new love: " 'You babbled? I thought you were the most reticent man in the world.'
" 'Every forty-seven years or so I babble.' "
In some of the stories there are reminders of a writer's remarkable gift. Chute, most widely known for her fictional Egypt, Maine, writes of a strong-willed farm widow and her gaggle of children, the family augmented by the herdsman who lives upstairs in the barn. "He was wearing a black-and-red checked coat and the spikes of a three-day beard," Chute writes. "It was the kind of beard men adrift in lifeboats have."
Maine's other heavy-hitter writers are seen in stark profile in short fiction, as well. Russo, late of Empire Falls, paints a spare but remarkable portrait of a man's deep need to connect with his late wife's lover, a Monhegan artist. Stephen King, in "The Reach," writes of Stella, an old and dying island woman who has never set foot on the mainland in her ninety-four years. There is an element of the otherworldly in the story, but at the same time, a revealing and perceptive depiction of island culture that is reminiscent of the best fiction of Ruth Moore.
King's Stella Flanders is a character who stays with you, coming to mind days after you've read the story, unbidden, like a song. The anthology is peopled with such characters. Susan Kenney's life-juggling young mother in "The Death of the Dog and Other Rescues," struggling to cope with a dying dog and a husband battling cancer. A little girl named Sarah in Cathie Pelletier's "The Music of Angels," who tiptoes back and forth on a tightrope strung between her estranged mom and dad. Debra Spark's Rachel in "A Short Wedding Story," who finds herself adopted by a pocket-sized rabbi given to dispensing parables. Three small-town women — teacher Mrs. Balch, busybody Rena, and pregnant Mandy — in "Elwood's Last Job" by Elaine Ford. Taken hostage by the town's misfit handyman when he decides to rob "the laundrymat," the three lash out at each other as they slowly realize the seriousness of their predicament and the things they did to contribute to it:
"She remembered when he was in her third grade class and he always hid slumped in the back row so as not to be called on. The other boys picked on him because he couldn't throw or catch a ball to save his soul, and she'd felt sorry for him, but when teachers butted into children's affairs it only made life worse for the victim. You just had to pray the tormentors outgrew the nonsense before too much damage was done."
Ford's story of Elwood and his plan to break free of his snow-shovel existence — duct-tape the women, load the loot into a suitcase, and catch the next bus to Bangor — is rife with telling details plucked from small-town life. They reveal occasional cruelty, accumulated grievances, and the underestimated and usually unnoticed significance of our actions and those of the people around us.
Of course, that's what good fiction does: it captures a moment, a minute, a decade in the life of characters and shines a new light upon it. The writer reveals something to us that we thought we knew, of course we knew, and yet there is that crystalline moment of realization as we see that the story is both magnifying glass and mirror. What we are seeing is our own lives, the world around us, in startling new detail.
Though their impact will vary from reader to reader, story to story, there are moments of revelation throughout. I found myself walking in the footsteps of an architect named Richard Milk in "A Job at Little Henry's" by Bill Roorbach. Middle-aged Milk, in the throes of a strained marriage and stymied career, accuses an outlaw neighbor of stealing. The neighbor, an oft-paroled sometimes handyman named Dewey, responds to the accusation by indignantly thrashing his more upscale neighbor. The two make up, and Milk, to his own amazement, finds himself inexorably drawn to the on-the-edge life of Dewey and his gun-toting buddies.
Early on, Milk goes to visit: "Pie tin in hand, Richard walked quickly down the road, suddenly aware of his new boating shoes, his bright socks, his purple shorts. Soon he was back in his house, searching his closet for clothes to wear to Dewey's. And in a black T-shirt from his son's drawer, blue jeans and work boots (both jeans and boots mortifyingly unscathed by work), Richard knocked on Dewey's trailer door."
Things spiral out of control from there, though not predictably. In fact, that may be the charm of this anthology. It is a collection of stories by Maine writers, about Maine, or that use Maine as a canvas. Yet the perspectives are varied, the characters diverse, the settings different from story to story. It is ultimately a prism, the colors changing with the turning of the page. When the book is done, the stories continue to shine. I hadn't written a thing, and all I could do was smile.
Gerry Boyle is a Maine writer. His latest novel, Home Body, was recently published by Berkley.