by Rio Liang
This is part two of my fiction review of the Fall 2010 issue of the “Santa Monica Review.” For part one, click here.
Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “Mickey Mouse.” A humorous and beautiful story of art amid war. Ohta is a struggling university teacher of painting during the “long, artless Imperial nightmare” that was World War II-era Japan. He is recruited by Kunugi, an old art classmate, to come up with Japan’s answer to the animated “enemy character” Mickey Mouse. It is a silliness that helps him make ends meet. It also allows him to continue working on his personal art, while other artists around him gradually lessen in number (the university is gradually defunded and eventually closed down; writers he is tasked to work with get drafted). We find out through the course of the story that Kunugi had an ulterior motive, which was to preserve the arts. Kunugi’s thinking, his widow explains to Ohta many years after his death, was that real artists should survive the war. It’s a poignant and surprising ending; hints of Kunugi’s patronship-of-sorts had been splattered throughout (his foregoing Ohta’s cartoon to examine his personal art work instead; the scroll of a Kyoto artist on his wall). …A definite recommend from me for its muted quality and great, subtle humor (one of my favorite scenes is when after his idea of an army cat as his proposed cartoon character is dismissed, Ohta asks, “Perhaps I can just draw a mouse?”).
Christopher M. Hood’s “Body.” Fresh from vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, Ruby brings her friend Janine to meet a friend, Susan, for a late lunch. Through the course of the conversation, Ruby recounts a story about having lost her credit card while in Cabo, which leads Susan to share her own experience with a lost card she’d found. To Ruby’s surprise, Susan had kept it and gone on a spree. Janine, mysteriously silent so far, suddenly chimes in with her own story of having found a body on the Merritt Parkway, which she didn’t report until later. Susan reads this as Janine feeling a simpatico with her–being exposed to the grittiness of life, they both understand (or so she thinks) the feeling of wanting to hold on to the moment a little sooner. But to deflate this sudden camaraderie, Janine claims she only made up the story. Of course, we have an inkling she didn’t just concoct this. We find out after the party of three has disbanded that finding the man, shot in the temple and dumped on the roadside, deeply affected Janine to the point of breaking off her wedding. Yes, the ending is somewhat predictable, but it brings us to a great last line: “Her breath formed before her and vanished into the winter breeze that bit at her ears, and life felt as meaningless and cold and sharp as the leaves had been around her ankles when she’d reached up into the branches to free her sweater.”
Christian A. Winn’s “Deep Down.” I liked this. Twenty-seven-year-old Boisean Phillip has a gambling addiction. So when his girlfriend Lyla, learning that her father had tried to commit suicide, asks Phillip to accompany her home to Carson City–with Reno just about twenty miles away–you know there will be problems ahead. The thought of gambling preoccupies him throughout the trip, even amid Lyla’s family drama. She does not have a good relationship with her folks, and things get shaken up when her depressive father suddenly disappears. They find him swimming in the municipal pool, of all things–a very odd act that resonates later when, in Reno, Lyla brings Phillip to a nearby river where, the local story goes (as told to her by a man who’d been comatose for thirteen years and is in town to get a quickie divorce), divorcees-to-be throw their wedding rings. All she wants, she tells Phillip, is to retrieve a ring from the river’s depths. I read this as a grasp at renewal, however unlikely, just like the chance to start over afforded to the comatose man when he finally came to. Phillip, with his gambling addiction, wants to start over as well, but when left to go home by himself (Lyla stays behind to take her father to the hospital), he takes a detour and gambles away almost all his money. Practically penniless, he later returns to the river and finds a scuba diver (ha!) actually excavate a ring from underwater. He wants to buy the ring off of him to give to Lyla. But sadly, of course, he can’t. …As I’d mentioned in the beginning, I really liked this. Just a very resonant piece. Kudos to the well-written dialogue; Lyla’s and Phillip’s conversations come off as particularly authentic and they always have something intriguing to say. Read this!
John Zaklikowski’s “What It All Boils Down To.” The closer for this fall issue bursts with a seeming world of its own. Boasting a teeming cast of characters, this story could very well have been a novel. But it succeeds as is as a long short story. The story is narrated to us by Luke, an erudite and struggling actor working at Cascade, a sprawling mental health vocational center in Manhattan. He’d moved from Madison with Jenny, now his ex-wife partly because of the move. In the end, after goading a friend of Jenny’s into telling him how his estranged wife is holding up, he learns a devastating secret she had kept from him. I won’t give away the ending, but the way Luke deals with it is just rendered with such poignancy. …There’s much to like about this story. I particularly appreciated the way it blends the humorous (the various ways he scrounges for pennies is just so hilarious) with the devastating. As I’d mentioned earlier, there are a ton of characters to wade through, so it can get chaotic at times, but the people we meet along the way are always intriguing. A long but good read.