We Were Flying to Chicago explores the weariness of life when you don’t become who you expected to be, and the loneliness of trying to connect to others in that existence. This collection has two very different types of stories. The titular story, “Open House,” and “I Know Who You Are” are propelled by their strong voice and conceptual nature, whereas the rest of the stories are character-driven.
Kevin Clouther’s expertise is in finding weirdness in everyday details. This weirdness isn’t always the detail that is screaming the loudest. In “The Third Prophet of Wyaconda” the premise is a stranger comes to town—more specifically, Henry Alexander appears in Wyaconda, Iowa, to preach on the sidewalks, claiming that he is one of Jesus’ prophets. Instead of making Mr. Alexander a charismatic orator, Clouther makes him bumbling and awkward:
If you listen, if you have just ten minutes to listen, I can tell you about the Book of Matthew. It is a beautiful book, I promise.
Henry leaned in and touched Megan’s arm. She didn’t like being touched by someone she didn’t know, but it was a brief, awkward touch, and it made him seem more sincere.
His stories exhibit this desperate desire to connect to others in the simplest ways. In fact, if his stories deal with the ennui of looking back on your life and expecting it to have been brighter, it would be even more accurate to say that his characters are disappointed because they thought they would have had more meaningful connections. To fully appreciate how bizarre this scene between Henry and Megan is, we need this detail:
It was at this point that Cal took his first long look at Henry, and like so many before Cal, he was surprised at what he saw. Maybe it was the black—black pants, shoes, shirt, hair—or maybe it was the constant gesturing, but people assumed that Henry was an ordinary-sized man, when he was anything but. He looked about thirty, was well over six feet tall, and close to 250 pounds.
By showing us Henry Alexander through the eyes of various townspeople, Clouther creates the sense of the entire town of Wyaconda reacting to Alexander as an outsider. We know from her own admission that Megan bristles when someone touches her and we know that Henry is a sizeable man who, at this point, is unknown to Megan despite Wyaconda’s small population. Yet, her reaction is a mixture of curiosity and pity:
And although she was uninterested in what Henry had to say—she had a church, after all—she liked that he’d asked her.
Clouther fills his stories with people who are willing to suspend their disbelief and let down their guards for the hope of a connection, which is a lot like what any reader is expected to do while reading. His more conceptual stories do a wonderful job of putting the reader directly into this desire , and this is perfectly demonstrated in his penultimate story, “I Know Who You Are,” which revolves around an unusual sandwich delivery man.
The story opens on the delivery man sitting in another man’s office, going through his files. He doesn’t seem capable of navigating the world competently, but we are helplessly along on his journey as he follows a man who made menacing eye contact with him:
I didn’t expect to hear a window open, softly, as if to emphasize the man’s control of the situation. That he could speak never occurred to me.
“I know who you are” is all he said.
What did he mean? That he knew I’d trailed him or that he’d seen me somewhere else? Worse, that he saw in me something he saw in himself, something he resented. It wasn’t hard to understand. I shouted that I knew him too, but the window was closed—even his shadow gone—and I didn’t know him, not at all.
There’s despair in the narrator’s desire to forge a connection with a complete stranger, and it’s clear that it’s on the level of necessity for him. He convinces himself that he must deliver a letter to the man. He comes to this decision through a thought process the reader cannot understand despite being privy to his stream of consciousness. We learn from him that it’s not just the reader who finds him odd:
Somebody asked me later if I was on drugs, like I couldn’t just be alone with my trembling thoughts.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that the character-driven stories are better, though certainly more palatable. It is almost beside the point because these stories were put together with purpose and hinge upon each other; the conceptual and character-driven stories are mutually entailing. The purpose of his conceptual stories is to open a vein, tap into a raw emotion in the reader, and his beautiful, character-driven stories are case studies in those emotions. Clouther makes us feel, and then he gives our feelings skin.
We Were Flying to Chicago, by Kevin Clouther. New York, New York: Black Balloon Publishing. 199 pages. $14.00, paper.
Louise Henrich has been published by Blood Lotus, Fiction Fix, and Danse Macabre. You can follow her Twitter handle, @louisehenrich.