On the Way, a novel by Cyn Vargas, reviewed by John Brown Spiers

“Love isn’t everything,” proclaims the back cover of Cyn Vargas’ debut collection—and, indeed, love is often in short supply. On the Way is a group of stories that are often about loss, regret, and unrequited feelings. What almost every story demonstrates is the moment in a character’s life beyond which everything will have to change. However, one thing Vargas is willing to show—which many other writers are not—is the painful, often boundless stretch of time between the moment of drama and its distant resonance: her stories echo Alice Munro’s as they leapfrog months, even years, using nothing more than a paragraph break.

For example, in “Guate,” the opening story, the narrator visits Guatemala for the first time, accompanied by her mother, who hasn’t been back since leaving at eighteen. The pair shares a beautiful vacation—until one afternoon when the mother goes out for groceries and never returns. Her abduction haunts the narrator, who refuses to believe that her mother is dead, that she won’t just return one day and restore the balance her abduction upset. After two months, the narrator’s aunt decides to send the young girl back to America, to live with other relatives in Ohio. The narrator’s return, however, is not the end of “Guate”; it’s merely the midway point of a physical and emotional journey that Vargas knows can’t end until her narrator is able to at least acknowledge the tragedy, if not move past it.

And “Guate” is not the only story that continues past where a more conventional storyteller would have stopped. “At This Moment,” a tale of harrowing child abuse between father and daughter, depicts a long-delayed reunion between the abuser and his abused, and, in the latter’s own words, forces her to admit “the time to save [her] was long gone.” The title story, about an absent father’s relationship to his daughter, takes a related tack, but suggests that when family fails, solace might be found in friendships.

We know from other stories in the collection, though, that friendships aren’t necessarily to be trusted. “All That’s Left,” the shortest in the collection (and the most shocking in part because of its brevity), gives us the immediacy of an emotional impact, in the form of an unshared love between two friends who had been nothing more. “Next in Line,” perhaps the collection’s funniest, further complicates the overlap between passers-by, friends, and would-be lovers: Lloyd, the lonely DMV employee with a woefully regimented life, gives a driving lesson to the relentlessly cheerful Melanie while working up the courage to ask her on a date. In the instant before he can get there, though, Lloyd instead realizes that she’s helped him understand how terrified he is of spending his life by himself:

He wanted to tell her he wanted to take her out. Anywhere. Somewhere they could talk, where he could get to know all about her: her tattoos, her friend Peter, how in the world her husband could let her go. He wanted to tell her how she made him aware of something he’d need to understand, which was that he didn’t want to be alone.

Instead of the magical love story we halfway expect as soon as Lloyd and Melanie are together in the car, “Next in Line” becomes about the importance of affirmation. On the Way is full of stories about characters whose ability to continue, to soldier on, becomes far more important than any hopes or aspirations they might have. But this isn’t a hopeless collection, or even a bleak one. Vargas’ debut refuses to engage in fairy-tale hopefulness; what it offers instead is a series of stories insistent upon reality. Which can be bleak. Thanks to its characters’ insights, though, it’s just as often hopeful.

On the Way, by Cyn Vargas. Republished by Tortoise Books, August 2021. 150 pages. $14.99, paper.

John Brown Spiers is a writer from Illinois living in Cincinnati, Ohio. His fiction has been published most recently in Silverthought, Whistling Fire, and the Red Rock Review.

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