“Why are we training Cerb to fight?”
“Because he needs to rediscover his nature.”
“What’s his nature?” Cerb ripped open the dummy’s head.
“This,” dad said, pointing. I didn’t get it. I’d seen Cerb eat his own shit once. “Like the wolf. Or, like, whatever came before the wolf even.”
Thus begins the strange world of, “Blood,” a short story in Justin Lawrence Daugherty’s new collection, Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise. In this collection, Daugherty aims to explore “nature”—questioning what originates internally and what is changed through external conflict. What can be changed, controlled, or manipulated? Is there really any stopping what is? Using spectacular economy to ask such large questions and pose probable answers is Daugherty’s true skill. The exploration of “nature” and what cannot be destroyed is examined through many misfit characters—a young boy and his father, two runaways, an expectant mother, a heartbroken man, a man with many scars and little recollection of pain, are just a few of the characters.
After a father is killed by a tornado in “Rebuilding. Construction.,” a sister and brother try to make sense of the horror in different ways. The sister, Neely, wants to uncover the father’s grave and to retrace the accident. Both brother and sister have oppositional natures—the brother interested in construction and rebuilding, and the sister, more interested in destruction. Xander, the uncle, asks Neely’s brother if she is “‘still strutting around town, giving it away like Christmas?'” Her brother, angered by Xander’s comment, later surmises,
I stumbled home and there was Neely in the dirt. She tore up flowers family and friends had planted in the ground at daddy’s grave. All those wrecked plants ringing her in the grass. Before I could say a word to stop her, she said, “Gotta prepare. I went to the library and read about resurrection. About ways to do bring up the dead. Got some ideas.”
This use of change within the characters shows the complexity of their relationship. In such a small amount of text, Daugherty is able to create the brother and sister as foils for each other—comparing and contrasting their strengths and weaknesses in order to create better understanding of the endurance of primal nature. By “resurrecting” her father, Neely may be able to gain a better understanding of her roots. Daugherty suggests that something as destructive as a tornado has now made Neely want to rebuild.
Daugherty builds on this change within Neely later, by writing from the brother’s point of view,
I woke in the morning and Neely was already outside, digging in the dirt. She’d borrowed a neighbor’s shovel. She dug at the makeshift grave, trying to bring daddy up out of the earth, hoping she might resurrect him, might bring him back and touch his face, touch the warmth. I stood in the doorway and watched. I’d stop her eventually, but it was okay right then just to let her do it her way.
The brother finally accepts that Neely is searching for something—something only her father’s body can give her. The brother surrenders to Neely’s search, which shows a tenderness that exists in the complicated relationship between the siblings. There is something about the nature of their relationship that both resurrects the father and also puts him to rest.
After two teenagers run away in “Fishkill,” the narrator begins to believe in the suspicions of his lover, Sonora, though he does his best to resist them in the beginning. They dive into a dumpster behind a KFC, and Sonora explains her superstitions regarding chicken bones. The narrator says,
Sonora said you could cast spells with the chicken bones if you knew how. She had seen her auntie do it. I don’t believe in none of that shit, I said. She asked how long it would take before our parents sent out armies looking for us. I shrugged. There wasn’t no one looking for us.
Sonora rediscovers her nature through her beliefs in superstitions, which her lover disdains. She mentions how there is an owl called “La Lachusa” that can claw his eyes out. Her lover doesn’t believe that there are signs of bad things, but Sonora challenges him to believe. Her character illustrates the nature of magical thinking—how innate it becomes.
In “Mermaids,” a diabetic man in a wheelchair selling wood-carved mermaids gives one to a pregnant woman, who has recently found that her baby will be born with abnormalities. She carries the woodcarving and sleeps with it under her pillow. The carving is beautiful and has something mystical about it that the woman finds comfort in. Daugherty does well in using the carving as an objective correlative in order to illustrate the woman’s difficult situation with accepting the birth defects of her baby.
There is a bridge that dogs jump to their deaths from that symbolizes the broken heart of a man. A man swearing there is a bomb on the lawn, which later, the character who believes him tries to pry the metal from the earth. A teenager works on competitive eating to impress a father who is a Marlboro Man in Japan. Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise introduces unexpected situations, but is able to create a strong affect in those situations. Daugherty’s characters are believable, endearing, and refreshing. His use of ironic humor, believable dialects, and uncanny conflicts work to symbolize the innate human quest for rediscovering nature.
Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise, by Justin Lawrence Daugherty. Passenger Side Books. $5.00, paper.
Kate Kimball received an MFA from Virginia Tech in 2010. Her work has appeared in Kestrel, Weber, Ellipsis, Hawaii Review, and Midwest Literary Magazine, among others.
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