Nathan Blake’s first, slim chapbook of stories, Going Home Nowhere and Fast, is more of a sample than a cycle. Not only does the collection offer few overarching concerns or ideas; little unifies Blake’s style, save his drive to experiment with it. And experiment he does. From “Ward” (a post-apocalypse narrative, told from the perspective of a dead man):
We trafficked again in a tidal meadow of bloodroot, swept back the grass in sheets, and buried ourselves, refusing further displacement. Suns flared with month-long rigor. Our eyes went pregnant with gelatinous skin, and we spent our time coughing to find one another.
From “A Primers for What Now of this Instant By Which I Mean Slaughter You Idiot” (an angry letter, I’m guessing, to a neighbour whose house is surrounded by a “slaughter,” and who may also be dead):
Neverminds took a look rightly outside your very own window if you weren’t believe what it’s I am talked about while I floats or sort of like vibrating in this cornered which are dues to my intensingly angers display at also to been dead forever myself because of all them writtened checks with your mouths your ass could not cashing BOOM I AM BLOWED UP THAT LAMP BESIDE YOURSELF WITH MINE MIND FOCUSES CAN YOU FELT IT!
From “When Us Men” (a kind of incantatory, metaphysical, chopped-up mediation on the relation between men and women, or something like that):
When us men don’t need them women. When make gone of them. When these women. When these women with mouths. When words. When touches. When looking & telling & finding. When brushing their eyes. When them like light. When beside walk. When beside sleep.
What links these sentences together? They all draw attention to themselves as sentences. If I were a Formalist, I would call them “foregrounding,” because they bring into the foreground the act of writing itself, thus (ideally) producing a sense of freshness in the reader’s experience of reading, meanwhile “backgrounding” the world which reading is said to represent. In any case, Blake—a young writer currently pursuing an MFA at Virginia Tech—is restless to play the stylistic field before settling. To read Going Home Nowhere and Fast is to read a young writer try new things as he goes (and grows).
The stories in Going Home Nowhere and Fast are thinly plotted; the plots are more like blueprints of plots than plots proper. The first story, “Going Down Like Little Jesus in Sun Hole,” is one of the most complex in the collection, and this is what happens in it: (1) The twenty-nine-year-old narrator, heartbroken after his ex-girlfriend, Lynne, leaves him for “Deputy Fire Marshal Chief Asshole Goon Dick-Sticker Teddy William Deston III,” chooses to live a solitary life with his fourteen-year-old dog, Mavis, in a house (cottage? cabin?) in the woods, near “what the Algonquians called Sun Hole.” (2) Spunk, the narrator’s friend (relative? nemesis?) “bangs out the house” because he’s been “caught fire to,” and the narrator “get[s] him good and extinguished.” (The narrator “can’t call medical” because “[t]hat will mark the end of Spunk’s civilianhood.”) (3) The narrator sleeps with “Spunk’s girl,” Shelby. (4) Spunk goes to “baptize” himself in the water. (5) Shelby catches fire. The narrator tries to save her. He presumably catches fire, too.
There’s some strange stuff going on here, particularly all the sex and burning. Yet unlike Blake’s style, the strangeness isn’t surprising. This is because “Going Down Like Little Jesus in Sun Hole” is yet another story about an impotent and heartbroken man in a house in a forest with a dog. Actually, the narrator is such a whiny tough guy that, observing the sunset, he remarks, “it looks like somebody went up there with a ladder and put a bullet between the sky’s ears.” What keeps the story afloat its own masculine mush is its feisty, buoyant diction. “[Spunk’s] one of those sparking fairground banshee wheels,” the narrator remarks near the beginning of the story, “busting porch balusters and headfirst over the railing, without traction when he first hits the drive. I’m between two water oaks deeply hammocked.” Class, get out your scansion sheets! There are enough Anglo-Saxon spondees here to perk Gerard Manly Hopkins’s ears.
Blake is also funny. He has that going for him. In “Going Down Like Little Jesus in Sun Hole,” he’s funny in a self-deprecating way. “I’ve got girls in my bed, two, three nights a week,” boasts the narrator, “girls who can suck the buttons off a double-breasted sports coat.” Okay, buddy. “Still,” the narrator continues, “it’s like my apricots have been tied off with wire hawser; there’s feeling but no true gravy in the line.” Oh, wait, I guess you’re all right.
Such brag-to-bathos progression, a formula that comedians like Louie CK i.e. The New Gogol have mastered, shows that he knows not only how to tell a joke, but also how to manipulate mood. This is something Blake does well, without humour, in “In Darkness and Quiet the Dead Will Speak,” the most stylistically acrobatic story in the collection. The story is one long run-on sentence, beginning:
The grandfather and the boy would sneak into the backseat of the decommissioned minivan hogging the boy’s parents’ garage amid capless cans of aerosol paint and bicycles long resigned to the rust of their impossible movements, the drip-pan cement floor heavy with an uninsulated bite, the lone overhead light flicked off from the far wall at one entrance, now shut […]
Once again, the themes here are typical for a young male writer to wrestle with (and I don’t mean for this to sound condescending, given that I too am a young male): masculine heartbreak, death, grandpas. Yet even though the plot is again thin, blueprinty, it develops its tensions toward an affective, believable end. “In Darkness and Quiet the Dead Will Speak” is about a recently widowed grandfather who moves into the spare bedroom across the hall from his grandson in his grandson’s parent’s house. The parents tolerate only “mild On-Topic discussion,” meaning “talk strictly relegated to schoolwork, medical concerns, or future goal setting/achieving,” so everyday after the boy returns from school, they escape to the garage and sit in the decommissioned minivan and “replay for each other the various this-and-that happenings [the boy] had been witness to that day.” One day, while the boy’s at school, the grandfather sits alone in the minivan and, well, I’ve already said too much.
What I find so impressive about this story is how it uses images of space and darkness to create a haunting, uncanny sense of the ineffable. I’m thinking particularly of the following passage, which takes place (spoiler alert) at the grandfather’s funeral, as the boy approaches the grandfather’s coffin, trying to make sense of his death (heavy stuff!):
[…] the boy knew this was it, something was flying out of him every day, something keen and wordless and only grown in dark spaces where you don’t need to see, you feel it, it feels you, you know it’s there even though it can’t be proved, and his grandfather was too tired to have this stuff fly out of him for so long, this man in black too had stuff flying out of him, everyone everywhere did, right now, all the time […]
Blake has potential. Going Home Nowhere and Fast is a sample of it. May I try another, please?
Going Home Nowhere and Fast, by Nathan Blake. Winged City Chapbook Press. $7.50, paper.
Gavin Tomson is the recent winner of The Dalhousie Review‘s inaugural short story contest. Writing is upcoming in Weijia Quarterly.
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