L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do thing differently there.” A portion of the quote reappears as a title midway through Robert James Russell’s collection Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out—and aptly. The Michigan, Chicago, Ozarks and Ohio evoked in most of these stories, and the Midwestern narrators flung far afield in others, operate under their own set of rules in a past not so long ago, but already strange and significant.
The debut collection from WhiskeyPaper Press, Russell’s twelve short stories rarely extend beyond two or three pages, but collectively paint a portrait of their first-person male narrators as they struggle to understand what remains unsaid between family and loved ones. The narrators remember, or believe they remember, the past. They remain hyper-observant of the small daily details that construct a life, while sometimes missing the larger picture. The future—desperately longed for by these boys and men—seems ever on the horizon, brimming with possibilities, while the past is often memorialized for doing nothing more than having already happened.
The brief stories skitter and lightly touch upon situations already in progress, and necessary background information is quickly filled in. Russell’s intention here seems to be to withhold but never confuse. He walks a fine line with his dialogue as well, which is both sharp and evasive, so that his characters often talk to one another, but they are never actually getting to the troubles that underlie and undermine their lives. The moments of direct address are startling, then, as when a young woman tells the narrator: “The way you kiss … is wrong … You use too much tongue … It is very American.” It is not insignificant that the story implies the young woman is not an American, herself.
In fact, there’s a Midwestern sensibility to the stories’ withholding: a sense of politeness on the surface hiding an undercurrent of disappointment and regret. The gossamer threads holding the parts of these stories together rarely announce themselves in loud or extravagant ways.
Take for example the collection’s opening story, “Frans.” The piece concerns a young boy and his sister, each the children of different men, acting out in their own ways to gain the attention of their unhappy mother. Only a phone call can startle the woman into life: suddenly she is “crying out, yelling into the phone in a language [her children] couldn’t understand, one she refused to teach … those words going on to die with her.” The other end of the conversation is never reported; neither is the mother’s nationality. These details, the story implies, do not matter so much as their effects—the words and language unknown, a reported disaster that cannot be said aloud. Meanwhile, as a terrific storm (what will be an F3 tornado) builds outside, the family watches their foreign neighbor Frans lose and then retrieve a Dutch flag. The man’s efforts are bittersweet, as he battles the wind with the flag “balled into a secure lump at his abdomen, careful not to let this piece of himself loose again.”
In “The Rough and Tumble Sort,” the narrator explains the early internet term “A/S/L” (age/sex/location) to his cousin. The still-new world of the Web—and the possibility of meeting girls who don’t know your true identity—offers an escape for both young men from their reality: the “ratty floral couch” in the Ozarks, M*A*S*H playing on the TV, and the cousin’s doomed dog suffering from worms.
Russell’s collection especially shines when focusing on the details and particularities of the narrators. For example, we feel a narrator’s discomfort while watching a new lover eat steak and eggs, the “gristle between her teeth, yellowed egg juice on her chin.” Russell’s humor shows when another nameless narrator is suddenly self-aware while he and his girlfriend sit in a bar, a disagreement souring the mood. A familiar song comes on: “… half the place singing along, and all I can do is regret buying that fedora a few months back that I’ve never worn.”
The future, too, is a time already tinged with sadness. The teenage couple in “Youth Is Sweet” is seeking escape from the girlfriends’ fighting mother and stepfather. The couple plans the life they might build together: the children and the happiness that is their due. But when the narrator’s girlfriend tells of her deceased father and her parents’ love “like in books,” the story’s tone turns elegiac, even morose. The new stepfather watches the young couple return; the fight has ended. In his expression (“face puffy, as if he, too, had been crying”), the narrator is casting ahead to his own future and the unimaginable way this relationship (at its highest point; the ideal) could turn sour and end.
Another couple, stopping along coastal California, face the end of their relationship, though neither has been able to say as much to the other. It is only when the narrator feeds two nearby squirrels from a bag of Spicy Hot Cheetos that the relationships’ true nature can be articulated. The narrator “wondered how long they’d stay with each other, if they mated for life, but decided probably not. Decided that the Cheetos, us being there, probably changed everything and they could never go back. It could never be like it used to.”
Fittingly, the couple in the collection’s final story, “Doing the Thing,” are walking along the beach after a tense dinner when they stop to listen to “the sound of the waves licking the beach, never yielding, calling out to us in a tongue we no longer understand.” In Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out, Robert James Russell is admonishing the reader—literally, check out the title!—and simultaneously attempting to create such a tongue: of the Midwest, of young men, of the moment when a decision must be made but no one wants to be the first to speak.
Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out, by Robert James Russell. Louisville, Kentucky: WhiskeyPaper Press, March 2015. 39 pages. $12.00, chapbook.
Brett Beach holds an MFA from Ohio State University. His fiction has appeared in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row, The Normal School, Hobart, Slice, and elsewhere. He is a 2015 Bread Loaf Scholar, and currently lives in Wisconsin, where he’s at work on a novel.