Scott Garson is a writer who captures moments, and it is here that his new collection, Is That You, John Wayne? excels. Individual moments are the stars of these stories, similar to the micro shorts in his previous collection, American Gymnopédies. The moments are quiet but powerful. The characters are unself-conscious. Most of all, they are sincere, and it is perhaps this characteristic more than anything that makes this collection fresh and engrossing. The strongest stories in this collection, the ones that stick with the reader the longest, are the ones that focus most severely, acutely, and minutely on a culminating single moment.
One such story is the title story, which relates a quiet afternoon between lovers playing a game of memory and movie quotes. However, by the end, it’s clear that it is not a game, that “luck is like love,” that there are secret messages, secret meanings, contained in this quiet domestic interaction, waiting to be deciphered. In one of the very short stories, “Note to Dickwad Ex-Stepdad,” the narrator focuses on how a single, quiet moment of a fork scraping on a plate can encapsulate all that is contradictory and painful and complex in a dysfunctional relationship. Even “Hourly,” the shortest story in the collection at five sentences, builds enough momentum to bring us to a meaningful moment, an articulation of longing. The closing moments in these stories are load-bearing in the best possible ways.
Another delight in this collection is the play with form, both in short story and very short story and in the epistolary, modular, and list forms. The variety in form offers a varied reading experience, creating beats and pacing within the collection itself and preventing that dangerous moment when the reader begins to feel that all the stories sound the same.
In this regard, one stand-out is “Acquired from Ex-Girlfriends,” a catalog of objects the narrator has retained from prior pursuits, each retaining a strong emotional color from that relationship and imbuing the narrator with different kinds of power. One item can make another girl jealous, make her “value me more.” Another, a pair of shoes that he continues to wear, lets him relive happy moments of the past. These objects are his, by accident or on purpose, and it’s the fact that he possesses them that is important.
In reading this collection, however, the prose feels curiously detached, even in moments when the primary characters feel strong emotions. In “Advent Santa,” the main character is so angry when a group of teenagers steals his son’s lawn Santa that he chases them recklessly in his truck, runs a red light, and is grilled by a cop for his reckless driving. And while the main character’s actions indicate rage, the prose is calm, matter-of-fact:
I said, “No—red Jeep. Two boys. They were trying to steal my kid’s Santa.”
The cop kind of studied me.
“DDJ or DOJ,” I went on. “That’s the plate. You could run it. DDJ, I think. For a red Jeep.”
The cop asked to see my license, my registration and proof of insurance. I let me eyes close.
The verbs are serene for a situation that is tense: said, studied, went, asked, let. While the reader learns that “my heart was banging,” the prose is not banging. Many of the stories in this collection have this tendency toward clear, calm, detached narrators. And, while it perhaps detracts from tense moments, it enhances some of the softer moments, where a detached narrator perhaps finally connects. In the same story, at its conclusion, the narrator has failed to protect his family in failing to protect the Santa, but “I saw I could maybe just do something here—something to get us inside.” Here, the narrator perhaps finally draws near to the situation, and to the other characters, in a shift made stronger by the detachment of his narrative voice.
Many of the characters in this collection speak from a similar place as the father in “Advent Santa”: a little outside, perhaps a little delayed, from those around them. These are stories about characters who function a little off-track from the world where they find themselves, but these are also stories about characters who keep trying. Greatman from “Greatman and the Non-Human Girl” is the story of a washed-up super hero who decides he can try to save one more soul, no matter what she may do to him. Harlan Colliers from “The Goth of SecurityOne Field” can’t stop writing letters to the annoying biographer writing about his former teammate as he keeps trying to get at the truth of why the rising baseball star died. While a detached prose style can be, in some ways, disorienting, it works well with the narrators and characters who people these stories.
This is a solid collection, with clear prose, diverse forms, and engaging characters. This is a collection to sit with, to read straight through, to feel how each moment matters.
Is That You, John Wayne? by Scott Garson. Queen’s Ferry Press. 164 pages. $16.95, paper.
Kelsie Hahn is days away from holding an MFA in fiction from New Mexico State University. Her reviews have appeared in Puerto del Sol and The Collagist. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, NANO Fiction, Inkwell, 1/25, and Timber, among others.