by Rio Liang
With summer upon us, this will be my last spring issue review for 2010, this one of the latest Santa Monica Review. (SMR is only published biannually, with a spring and fall issue; the next issue comes out in September). As always, support small press literary journals and magazines. Pick up a copy of the latest SMR and enjoy!
Linda Purdy’s “Waiting for the Light to Change.” It’s a spring day in Tustin, California, and Lois Smith is at a left-turn pocket waiting for the light to turn green. She’s admiring the sunlight hitting the leaves of magnolia trees to the side of the street, wondering at how photosynthesis could be enacted through great distances, the Sun being as far away as it is. “Natural law is all we need,” she thinks. She’s snapped out of her contemplation however by the sight on her rearview mirror of a truck being chased by police cars, speeding toward her left-turn pocket. The speeding vehicles dodge a collision with the back of Lois’s car by jumping the center divider instead, and she drives home, understandably shaken by what has just happened. She writes a letter to the Tustin Police Department’s Traffic Division telling of what had just transpired, how she had been thinking about the Sun’s ability to get its job done and reach the leaves of the magnolia tree on the side of the street from such a far away distance. She writes, in the story’s punchline: If the Sun could do its job so efficiently in that manner, so could the police officers pursuing the rogue truck. All the cops need do, she explains, is jot down the truck’s license plate and enforce the law from a distance. …There are stories that are meant to engross you and there are stories meant simply to entertain, light fare, told in a manner similar to a joke. This is of course of the latter variety, and it does indeed entertain. A good appetizer for the rest of the issue.
Gary Fincke’s “Are You Still There?” The Foss Family has recently been split apart, with Anne having left her journalist husband Greg and leaving their twelve-year-old son Alex with him until she sorts things out. Greg spends time with Alex, taking him to the podiatrist to take care of his son’s pronation problem (as well as his own ingrown nail) and taking him out to a Renaissance Faire; yet Greg’s actions are not exactly fatherly. The arrangement between Anne and him does not noticeably affect Greg, but it does Alex. Unfortunately, Alex’s being distraught about his parents’ separation is not as noticeable to Greg as it is to the reader. When Anne calls to check up on how the boy is doing after receiving a call from the police, she is incredulous at Greg’s ignorance regarding Alex’s problems and his distance from his own son living everyday with him. “Does he still live there?” she asks. According to the cops, Alex had been making obscene phone calls to a certain Mr. Beaver in Bradyburg, a town 20 miles away. Even after a cop gets a hold of Greg to explain that this was a clear cry for help from a clearly troubled child, Greg remains dismissive, truly thinking it’s just boys pranking Alex, and reasoning with Anne that it’s better than his son being beat up by those boys. Everything unravels for Greg when one day he returns home after a prematurely stopped walk–a result of the ingrown nail he’d failed to take care of, a problem he’d failed to address much like his son’s cry for help–and finds the phone bill, which Alex had marked in such a way as to clearly incriminate himself, highlighting in no unclear terms evidence of his phone calls. Greg investigates the matter, as urged by his ex-wife, by calling one of the Mr. Beavers in Bradyburg, but a little too late, and still not grasping the reasoning behind his son’s actions nor their gravity. …Not everyone will probably like nor get this story; in fact, I don’t think I “get” it all myself (let me know if my synopsis is off the mark; I’m actually curious about others’ reads of the story). But the story is just so rich with disarming passages and details. Whether they add to the actual story or distract from it is debatable, but the fact that scenes from the story stick out so strongly in my mind–the tattoo of a woman performing a sit-up with the flex of an arm; the Japanese beetles risking death for the sake of sexual pleasure; the odd podiatrist–lead me to putting this story in my recommend list. Check it out and let me know what you think.
John Haggerty’s “Sunshine and the Machine.” We’re in miserable Mecklenberg, where nothing happens. A hippie named Sunshine befriends Tommy, an operator of a non-functioning bulldozer. His job, were his equipment actually functional, is to transform a trashed meadow into a big-box store on behalf of Altacorp. This of course runs counter to Sunshine’s and her hippie league’s environmentalism–an endangered toad roams these fields–which leads to a stalemate. Then one day, Tommy’s sleazy boss Gavin holds a meeting with Tommy and an Altacorp mucky-muck named Rob. The suit offers Tommy $5,000 to blow up Gavin’s busted dozer to frame the hippies and call the incident an act of terrorism. Little do they know that on the other side, the hippies have just found out that the toads of the meadow are in fact not endangered, and as such they are looking to save face. Neither side wants any blame–Rob insists the dynamite idea is Gavin’s, while the hippies want to blame Altacorp for an actual toad massacre before anyone realizes the toads are not the Creosote kind. So when Tommy finds Sunshine shoveling away one night and discovers her plot, he gets angry and detonates the dynamite. The punch line of the story is that Gavin’s dynamite, much like his bulldozer, does not work. Both Tommy and Sunshine realize they’re stagnating in this podunk town for their “causes” and decide to leave this whole affair to the toads. …Funny piece, though there were times the story delved into sitcom speak (“It suddenly seemed so…toady”; “No. Not really. It just sounded like a better confession”). I like the revelation that those toads the environmentalists are trying to save in fact engage in their own brutal ritual: The females cannibalize the males to get stronger as they lay their eggs. They’re just like the giant corporations that devour everything around them, getting ever stronger.
T.D. Anderson Jr.’s “AWOL.” Our narrator Sawvell and Jersey seek to help their Navy buddy Ray by obtaining a gun to kill the assumed murderer of Ray’s four-year-old son. They travel from San Diego to Phoenix to meet Jersey’s connection, an old college friend and skinhead named Shawna. Her one condition for handing over the gun? That they help her release a baboon from the local zoo. The men do as told and with gun in their possession drive back to San Diego to follow through on their “plan.” On the way, they stop in the wake of an accident, a truck having rammed into a bus. It’s a bloody scene–the panicked victims remind Sawvell of the Twin Towers’ collapse–that snaps Sawvell out of his crime “spree,” of having gone “AWOL.” The two end up at a cafe where a woman serves them free coffee, consoling them, these two men who were about to enact something atrocious. Away from sight, the men unload their anger by firing shots at nothing, and consequently bury the gun, like Ray’s child placed in his grave. They realize right at the nick of time that they are not the kind of persons who could carry such an act through to fruition. …I like how the men, presumably previously law-abiding (they were in the Navy after all), remain in the end with their morality more or less intact. They enter unknown territory, like the transition from city to desert where “it was raining stars forever” (great line, that), but leave it the same as they had been before, not as the monsters they could never truly have imagined themselves to be (you get the sense the crime they were going to commit was very nebulous to them). Sawvell still commits a crime by being an accomplice to a rescue mission/release effort, but staves off the more serious crime by not carrying out the murder attempt they had in mind. It’s bittersweet that the men can set things right again for Shawna (however funny a baboon rescue sounds) but ultimately cannot do so for Ray.
Michael Cadnum’s “Glass Bullet.” A definite recommend. Central to the story is a Dante saying about letting loose the leaves you’ve swept up, i.e. about “letting go.” Dr. Capp is a work-at-home online grief counselor. It’s tough times for him, just as it is with the people he consoles. He’s sold off many of his possessions just to get by. His sister Lou Ann has apparently sold off their relatively recently deceased father’s collection of guns, but not the arrowheads and a particular space rock, a tektite, that Capp had always wanted. He flies from his Oakland home to his old hometown of Costa Mesa to visit and sort this out. She’s a former real estate agent and tries to sell the arrowheads to him, shyster-like. All he wants however is the tektite; it represents to him his father, and he wants to hold on to his memory. He had died not on good terms with Capp, who had grown annoyed with his father’s desire for collecting (a nice contrast to the letting-go bit by Dante from earlier). Capp soon discovers during the conversation with his sister that Lou Ann had broken her ankle and is in need of money. He leaves heeding Dante’s saying, letting her have everything. However on his way home at the airport security check he finds that Lou Ann had tucked away the tektite in his pocket. He has it appraised and finds out it’s a mere volcanic tektite (as opposed to the more valuable outer space variety) worth only around 30 dollars. Still, he sends out a check for $500 to Lou Ann to pay for the tear-shaped rock, an act not just of kindness in a time of economic famine, but also an act, again, of letting go. The story ends with Capp pondering the gunshots he hears daily outside his Lake Merritt home, how they may on occasion not merely signal death and trouble but perhaps celebration and optimism. …Though the story may at times feel too symmetrical, I love how Mr. Cadnum brings all the elements of the story together. The tektite acts as a wonderful device here, especially it being tear-shaped, a representation of grief and of hanging on to that grief. And how interesting to have Capp as an online chat grief counselor. The world of this story is filled with sadness and hardship; death is rampant as well (Capp’s father; Capp’s wife who’d died ten years ago; even the symbolic drowning of the wasp in Capp’s mai tai). Yet hopefulness shines through in the story. Great read.
Sean Bernard’s “Torturers.” Wow, this is good, possibly one of the best stories I’ve come across this year. A boy and his stepfather, a former language school teacher, have just moved to Los Angeles from Iran during the recent presidential election protests. He arrives at his new school equipped with a many-pocketed Jansport backpack and utterly unliked by his new classmates. The only one remotely acknowleding him in this new environment is the “prettiest girl” in class, a troubled kid whose parents are in jail for trying to kill each other. At home, the boy and his stepfather watch, ironically, “24” together in their living room, the scenes of terrorism and torture from the show melding with the reality of the current bloodshed in Iran, until they seem to be one and the same. According to the stepfather, “the secret to being in a dark place with bad people is to forgive them, pity them, love them. Best of all, get the hell out of there. Don’t take it. Run.” It’s a philosophy that causes a bit of cognitive dissonance to our narrator, who himself is facing hardship in the form of bullying at school. In a funny turn of events the bullies warm up to the boy’s peacefulness, his caring about the world and its pain. Being peaceful becomes ironically in vogue in this arbitrary system. In the boy’s first outing with his new troublemaker friends, he witnesses Harden (one of the ringleaders; and a great symbolic name) and the boys torture some midgets; however our backpack-carrying narrator gets named as the mastermind. Afterwards, he settles into this new role he finds himself in of the leader of the pack, one of the popular kids, a kingpin. At one point when someone squeals on him, his henchmen capture the rat and leaves our narrator to torture him. However by this point, he’s become apathetic; he no longer cares and lets go of the captive. He realizes he is lucky not to have a “father” to kill; earlier the boy’s new teacher had given a lecture about Freud’s idea that every son is hardwired to kill his father (which in this story represents a “revolution” of ideas, the potential of changing one’s course from that taken by one’s “father”); unfortunately as we can see the boy has in a way adapted his stepfather’s stance. In the end, the class watches “24,” and the pretty girl rails at everyone for finding entertainment out of torture and the problems of the world, for not caring. The response she receives is that people here can’t protest along with the people there: We don’t have anything to protest about, so what can one do but enjoy life and adopt apathy? The ending is funny and tragic at the same time, as the boy decides to lead his henchmen into senseless battles, mistaking that for the “caring” the pretty girl was advocating. “We’ll start protests against nothing,” he says, having warped the idea of revolution. …The story is set in that midpoint between the real and the unreal, much like the dream the boy tells us in the beginning of story, of him dreaming about torture only to realize he is in actuality awake in the middle of a street with his skateboard. The use of “24,” having the characters view life, morality, and the idea of revolution through the lens of the show, is just so effective here, so perfect. There are so many standout moments throughout: I love the Wheaties bit; the backpack with many pockets (“Is the great appeal of pockets the ability to hide and to hide again? Like an unfolding mystery?”); the “Froyd”/”Floyd” bit with the Japanese teacher; the funny beach scene when the pretty girl is expounding while the boy is offering food from his many pockets; the scene when the stepfather asks the boy, “Why, do you suppose, you’re standing in the kitchen, knife in hand, staring at me? Get out, play with kids your age”; the ending with the donkey and the petals. I can go on and on. This story is so rich. I can read it many times over, each time molding, redefining and refining my interpretation of it. In fact, I’m pretty sure my current understanding of the story may be somewhat off the mark, not yet full (point my mistakes out to me, readers, and let me know your interpretations!). It almost goes without saying: Definitely very most absolutely read this, people. Twice over, thrice even!
Stay tuned for Part II of this review in the coming days, when I cover the rest of the SMR Spring 2010 stories by Greg Bills, Racelle Rosett, Scott Bransford, Sara Flood, Erik Rangno, and Diane Lefer. In the meantime, let me know what you think of this SMR issue so far!