Grace for Grace
Steve De Jarnatt
Better known for his 1988 film Miracle Mile—an entertaining mashup of at least three different genres (the nuclear war story, the love story, the Los Angeles urban satire)—Steve De Jarnatt puts forth a collection of short stories now, each written with a filmmaker’s eye for expansive dramatic structure and the signal-shifting image: the hopeful horizon after an imperiled night, the crash of lightning/thunder after a mad scientist’s reveal. It’s not for nothing then, perhaps, that six out of the eleven otherwise varied stories in Grace for Grace, although each beginning from a place of relative realism, psychologically speaking—De Jarnatt’s characters are nervous with backstory, while “pop-shrink,” a favorite hyphenate, is employed alternately as verb and noun several times—nevertheless feature turning points hinged, whether figuratively or literally, upon the almost anti-psychological, quasi-supernatural catharsis afforded by inclement weather.
The collection opens with “Rubiaux Rising,” previously reprinted in the 2009 volume of Best American Short Stories edited by Alice Sebold, in which for a detoxing Gulf War veteran Hurricane Katrina possesses the ability to create a dangerous paradise, equal parts Eden and Noah’s Ark, out of a flooding New Orleans attic. From here, the stories only grow more elaborate: an electric storm, “the confluence of three major fronts,” breaks down marriages and social institutions in the wide-ranging “Mulligan,” while in “Her Great Blue,” one of the most outlandish stories published in years, the very shifting of tectonic plates turns a low-lying island into high ground and the seafloor into a post-apocalyptic warzone, the setting for a bizarre romance between a former Vogue model and a whale.
A heat wave strikes Chicago; a dust storm hits Las Vegas. Readers familiar with any of these tactics might assume the exterior represents the interior, something De Jarnatt himself does not entirely swerve away from—forest fires, a rogue healer says to the woman who changed his life, first for the worse then for the better, in “Escharotomy,” are “all part of the grand holistic plan. Hundred-year conflagrations are the only way to birth certain necessary seeds. Nature can be harsh sometimes, but it is always wise”—yet if he’s playing with the tropes of a certain romantic disposition toward violence of the natural world and its tough-love relevance for the heart-space of his characters, he does as much work to separate himself from such an easy, one-to-one correlation. Phenomena react, even rebel, against the modern passivity of De Jarnatt’s characters, or perhaps it’s just as likely they don’t; they are merely what they are, in the end as motiveless as the cosmos, as bound by habit and happenstance as those they ambiguously affect.
If the real-life storm of “Rubiaux Rising” presents a necessary emotional outlet for its several-ways-traumatized title character, it also does so without any great specificity, bringing much of the writing here closer in line with the existential naturalism of Crane’s “Open Boat.” In the floodwaters of the hurricane, “a large king snake, two smaller water snakes, four fat nutria,” and dozens more specimens of animal life come to share in the attic space where the double-amputee Rubiaux has been sequestered by his aunt to undergo a cold-turkey withdrawal. “All seem to breathe in a strange unison,” De Jarnatt writes of this menagerie, as the storm beyond the attic windows becomes less the externalizing of the amputee veteran’s pain then a random, almost banally hostile experience that knocks all things animate back down to the ground.
This is seen perhaps most clearly in “Chronicles of an Umbra Hound,” a miniature, jet-setting epic seemingly written in an impression of the sort of whimsically clever yet chilly, stiffly elegant Paneuropean style of a Harry Mathews or Tom McCarthy. Beginning with the narrator’s birth in 1943, the story tracks the unnamed man’s increasingly isolating passion for visiting far-flung locales to rack up minutes under the shade of solar eclipses. In his obsession with the cycles of the cosmos, the narrator attempts several times to connect the unapproachability of these events to some more knowable human form, first to that of his parents, whose actions, like those of the solar system itself, “were sometimes cold, compounded by their detached logic,” then to the children he initially avoids having: “their chaos was a useless orbit as far as I was concerned.” As one must in a story like this, the narrator falls in love eventually with a fellow worshipper of such natural phenomena, and though it seems there is a genuine love between them, it is as if for this particular umbraphile, who has spent all his life now seeking his own meaning in the habits of a universe blind to him, the red-bloodedness of a relationship is almost unthinkable. “I needed distance again,” he says, “a reprieve from the bliss of too much life.” For the narrator, the sheer scale of star systems and the inanimate movements of nature are rendered almost bizarrely unnatural:
I developed an increasing sort of vertigo. I would
obsessively dwell on motions, large and small—vibrations
of the subatomic—the spinning orbs of electron valences
—moons around planets—planets around stars—galaxies
pinwheeling in space—each one expanding away from all
others equally ever since the Big Bang.
The very dashes in the sentence above seem to pull the narrator out and out further from any source of life until he’s back to the beginning of time with only a rich-in-potential abyss. Emphasizing this movement further, De Jarnatt creates a series of visual puns depicting the narrator’s cosmic distraction and his resulting discomfort within the ordinary scope of human connection. He gains a deep mistrust of bridges, and at one point he and his lover stare at one another across a span of ocean from the decks of two lavishly appointed cruise-liners, quite literally ships in the night.
Elsewhere, in those stories not specifically dealing with the natural world and the chaos wrought from its interpretation, characters once again edge up against the paradoxically systematic confusion of the universe. In “Blood Up,” shifts of power in the war of the sexes are as emotionally inscrutable as passing tides, while in “Exit Left,” potentially the richest of these shorter tales, an actor has a combination meltdown/epiphany when he traps himself in a closet after walking out the wrong door in an audition room.
It’s in these tighter stories, without the scaffolding of natural phenomena to supply them with a readymade shape, that one can better see De Jarnatt’s language and the ways in which it both succeeds and sometimes struggles to maintain a point of view. The accompanying blurbs of the collection speak readily of De Jarnatt’s sentences in a “love of language” kind of way, and while it’s true that De Jarnatt writes effusively (and often as not, thankfully, without resorting to the sort of slashed, violent poser-menace that has overtaken much of modern surrealism), it’s also clear that such effusion can become a bit of a sticking point when not properly calibrated. The language can, occasionally, outpace itself, as when, describing a sexual encounter from a female perspective, he writes, “Audrey felt a glow rise down at the crux of her, cascading up her spine.” Rise, down, cascading, up—the language pulls in all directions, and while that may be the intent, it’s also risking formlessness.
Attempts to rein this in, meanwhile, can be hit-or-miss. Present tense is the preferred mode across these stories, narrowing the frame of reference available to the prose and creating a kind of persistent close-up style—registering clause by clause the individual detail, the shifting eye of the “now” moment—resulting in a potentially artificial propulsion of language as the reader keeps to the page merely to figure out what’s going on. This has the side-effect of a certain vagueness around the edges of the language, most apparent in plot development, where it can seem like De Jarnatt is withholding unnecessarily. Take this scene from “Escharotomy,” in which a woman is witness to her mother’s deathbed confession:
“Down in that church basement—it wasn’t what—that
man—you need to know this Audrey,” she’d said, finally
aiming pupils point blank at her only child. Audrey
listened, her mother’s words barely audible above the
music of the monitoring machines. Such was the weight
of the secret imparted—the Earth stopped rotation, then
spun the other way. No one in the world noticed but
Audrey. Her mother’s mouth held open, a last word
stranded in her throat, lips bluing around it. Audrey
looked for a soul floating, some ethereal ash rising from
her extinguished flame, but there was nothing. Only the
silent explosion of what had been said.
One can imagine this working perfectly well as a scene in a film, where the camera is allowed the distance of an unaffiliated auditor and such elliptical dialogue can be read as “natural.” After all, if two people know what they mean when they say it, what does it matter if the audience doesn’t know yet? The problem here is that even in the most omniscient of third-person narrations, prose is a substance with which characters interact, from which characters gain meaning and readers appreciate that meaning, and by the time the reader reaches “the silent explosion of what had been said,” there’s very little way to join in with the action. In the fullness of time, yes, the reader is eventually educated on the meaning of this final sentence from Audrey’s mother, but it takes several pages, by which point there is little ability to go back and live inside the character’s initial, evidently emotionally devastating understanding of that moment.
Far greater is De Jarnatt when he casts a wide net from the start, opening broadly in a kind of long-shot to offer readers the contours of his story and better allow them to appreciate small details when they crop up again in close-up. Here’s an opening paragraph, this time from “Woonsocket”:
Henry Collard bussed home from Walpole to Woonsocket
at the end of a twelve-year bit to find his son, Jackie,
unmoored and graceless, the way a whole generation
seemed to be, in constant fidget with the shiny trinkets of
the times. His only child had been an eager, clear-eyed
boy growing up, wanting to be umpteen things: a goalie
or a shortstop; then maybe drums; finally a poker pro, but
Jackie no longer possessed a shred of passion for
becoming anything. His days now spent being not much
more than a depression on the basement couch, a source
of sullen, thumb-clicking racket, a sieve for endless
Things go right here from the start. The story’s title is immediately explained, introducing in a far more organic way the propulsive tension previously provided by De Jarnatt’s close-up present-tense. The reader isn’t reading anymore to find out what’s going on but, rather, to find out what will happen, to find out, as Joseph McElroy might put it, what can happen. Characters are similarly placed in both space and time from the jump, they are even placed in a kind of social time—Jackie being “in constant fidget with the shiny trinkets of the times,” a phrase that will gain more specific meaning later on, but is perfectly understandable here all the same. De Jarnatt then moves into a satisfying montage mode with the paragraph’s second sentence, offering the emotional equivalent of close-up language re: Jackie’s character and promise, before rounding out the paragraph overall as the long-shot view of Jackie and his interests becomes, both amusingly and heartbreakingly, a series of physical objects in close-up: a well-worn spot on the couch, a noise his father might hear and complain of, a throat that is no longer a son’s flesh but a machine, so demoralizing is the view of Jackie’s drinking, and so mechanical is that drinking’s continuance.
This is the additive quality of prose done well, and it’s a quality present down to structure in the best of these stories. In “Her Great Blue,” previously mentioned, the story again opens with a wide net view, the language evoking a kind of social satire as De Jarnatt reveals a cruise ship, “the first ecotouristas of the season” passing within eyeshot of a rumpled woman in a canoe. The woman, it turns out, is a previous-life model named Muriel Woods, out on a dive with her husband who has lost all of his money in a market downturn and has stranded them both on a remote island, formerly their vacation destination, where they now spend much of the time hunting treasure to pay for a plane trip home. If that sounds busy, that’s because it probably is, though it’s not without its own strange purpose, and where in “Woonsocket” De Jarnatt moved inward with the physical objects that simultaneously create and destroy a family, here in the accumulated detail of plot, the narration races forward from the vast space provided by his long-shot opening into yet wilder genres. By the time the story is over, we have seen a romance, a gangster revenge plot, a disaster thriller, all of it leading De Jarnatt back to the oldest form of storytelling there is: the oral tradition of great myths. How he gets there—what storms create his turning points—is worth the price of admission to find out, and for all his effusiveness and sometimes artificial sense of style, there is something genuine in the book on the basis of this observation alone, as though for even the most linguistically adventurous writers plot could still be the undiscovered country, beyond mere words.
Grace for Grace
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