Drowned Boy, by Jerry Gabriel. Louisville, Kentucky: Sarabande Books, 2010. 154 pages. $15.95, paper.
Jerry Gabriel quickly sets the scene in his first book of stories, linked by place and characters. In “Boys Industrial School,” the third sentence reads: “Beyond Nate and Donnie Holland there was just the desolate November woods and the endless hills and Milford Run meandering next to the road among the thickets.” The entire book is prefigured here—the narrator and hero Nate, the bleak winter landscape, and the aimless life of Moraine, Ohio. Even the run-on construction of the sentence contributes, abetted by “meandering” and “thickets,” in which things get stuck.
These are stories of high artistic merit, yet the mood is somber. Despite flashes of humor, there is no uplift in the frozen, economically depressed world of Moraine, named for its glacial deposits. The book title is taken from the longest story, where the central event is the drowning of a boy named Stevie Lowe in the icy river that “skirted the town in an ox-bow curve, nearly circumscribing it.” Stevie’s death is the death of the town. Poverty is endemic, shoplifting is the local pastime, alcohol abuse is the norm, and police assume that boys are criminals. One of the few ways out is to join the army, as Donnie does.
Though it is said to be in rural Ohio, Moraine is actually located in the New American Pastoral, that grim, stylized world of peeling paint, flimsy trailers, used cars, white trash, family feuds, and alcoholic rage. The inhabitants are powerless and hopeless, they speak in dialect, they drink beer and soda pop, and they eat things like bratwurst, beef jerky and powdered donuts. There is kindness, as a stranger shows to the ailing Samantha, and moments of awareness, as in “Marauders,” where “We sat wordless and ashamed” in the neighborhood bar. But most of the time, the characters move slowly as though underwater, and without purpose as though asleep.
At fifty-one pages, the story “Drowned Boy” is the longest. It could be called a novella, except that it lacks conflict, character development, plot, and explicit meaning. Still, it is compulsively readable, and the things it does offer are tantalizing. Ostensibly about the funeral of Stevie, lying in his parents’ house, as mourners swarm indoors and out, is it really the love story of Samantha and Nate? Does it describe the effects of grief, disorienting and exhausting, or of teenage angst, or of winter sadness, or all of the above?
Nate grieves for his father, dead a year before, and Samantha grieves for a second self, faceless and ghostly, alphabetically seated next to her in the classroom. They meet by chance twice in one day, in the grocery store where Nate works, and at the Lowe house. Why do they both wander, on foot and by car? Toward the end, as Samantha is likely to die of exposure in the snow, beside another frozen stream, Nate finds her abandoned car. Is the third time the charm? Will the hero find the heroine, save her, and kiss her? The last sentence reads simply: “He stopped to see what was the matter.”
The parallel structure of “Drowned Boy” is part of its appeal: scenes alternate between Samantha and Nate, suggesting more than is said. “Marauders” is experimental in using a first person plural narrator. “We” are the main actor and hapless chorus, following the school basketball team from game to game in the dead of winter. “We sat on those uncomfortable wooden bleachers for hours on end—days, sometimes—donning our maroon-and-gold sweaters and polo shirts.” The fans are boisterous, but “so many of us had fallen into our lives…we felt beaten down, really, gaining weight in unproud ways.” Hilarious and sad, the story is a success, while we are haunted by “us.”
Unmoored by dates, the stories take on the dreamy quality of legends. But “Reagan’s Army in Retreat” connects obliquely to national politics. Nate tries to find his older brother, and instead pitches his tent in the snow outside the house of a strange family. They take him in—another act of charity—but disaster follows in the form of a chimney fire. “Atlas” shows a confrontation of hippies and older men, and eerily predicts the Occupy movement.
Gabriel completed these stories before 2008, when they won a prize. He is now an assistant professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. It will be interesting to see if the Maryland shore has a warming effect on his fiction.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, website boucheronarch.com. He writes on housing, home improvement, gardens, communities, and electric motorcycles. His fiction and nonfiction appear in Cerise Press, Cossack Review, Dark Matter, Echo, Mouse Tales Press, among others. More at idealtown.wordpress.com.