Stacy Austin Egan’s prose chapbook, You Could Stop It Here, is an encounter with a memory snag that just won’t smooth out: youthful regrets, missed chances, and ultimately transformative ordeals that wake us in the middle of the night—rumination from an adult perspective. Like encountering someone you used to love in an unexpected time and place, there is a bittersweet pleasure in revisiting pivotal moments from youth in these well-tuned and entertaining stories.
The first of four stories, “You Could Stop It Here,” pulls in the reader with a second-person point of view narration, with the brittle mature sense of humor that admonishes her younger self. Those that were humanity or literature students will especially relate to the situation of a young undergrad hooking up with a charming professor, because who doesn’t know someone who did exactly what the narrator is cautioning the “you” of this narrative against. There are three or four woman I could recommend this story to, if I wanted them to cringe; however, the narrator is not harsh—there is real concern in replaying scenes in her imagination, and witnessing her youthful self, caught in an escalating but doomed love affair. The narrator doesn’t let her younger self get away with anything: “This is a cliché.” The blunt, older, wiser narrator isn’t being cruel; she’s survived those years and now has a nuanced understanding of past exploits, and can, at times, laugh at it, as hopefully we all can when we look back on our tender years. There are perfect lines that are a joy to come across, such as, “This is not An Affair to Remember, and you’re no Deborah Kerr.” Austin Egan crafts her narrator’s tone so that it is consistently stern, regretful and nostalgic—not easy to pull off in an early career work, without story-telling devices calling attention to themselves.
The story of a teen on an emotional rollercoaster and her strained relationship with the older sister she admires, rises above teen drama. What could have just been 90s teen-movie flashbacks of an enamored girl getting sick in front of the boy she crushes on, instead becomes an earnest exploration of that fragile space between leaving childhood identity behind and the as yet unreachable young adulthood identity. The main character is astute enough to recognize this difficult liminal space, “between who I was and who I wanted to be …” We stay in the fifteen-year old girl’s point-of-view except for a jump into the adult she became, where the consequences of her sister’s teen pregnancy, played out in her own “use of condoms and birth control pills together for all of my young adult life.” This tremor between past and present quickly heightens the immediacy of the moment—the teen, her sister’s older desirable boyfriend, the danger of a local madman, and the urge to escape from the confines of childhood reach a crescendo of hard-won realizations that reverberate for years in the narrator. The ending hints that the bond between the narrator and her sister, Julie, is not shattered, but just shifting into a relationship they can both be supported by. Again, an authentic story for American women to relate to. This story, and others in this work, are decidedly a female perspective of suburban, middle-class 1970s-2000s, stories that encourage consideration of what moments shaped us into the women we are today.
The third story, “Say at Me You Are My Friend,” has a brilliant Raymond Carver feel to it. It starts off with some great scene setting of a mundane after-school job at an ice cream shop, but surprises as the setting evolves to the scene of a life and death confrontation. There are several entertaining John Hughes-type cinematic moments, two boys and a girl and one of the boys’ girlfriend are hanging out on a slow business night. Agatha has a crush on co-worker, Kirk; Kirk has a clingy girlfriend, Megan, who Agatha and her other co-worker, Patrick, nickname, “Magic Mountains” for a sundae that Kirk named for Megan—the hilarious love-triangles of the teenage years is perfectly captured in the story. The breezy observations, like Agatha has “dedicated fifteen minutes of every hour to just staring at Kirk,” keep the tone light and are especially effective as contrast when the story evolves into an all too realistic crisis. Robbers intrude into the teen oasis, and though they are not fully fleshed out characters, they provide the opportunity for Agatha to evolve. When the robbers linger, in order to taunt the frightened teens, one of the two wants music, so he can dance with Agatha. The Cars Greatest Hits incongruently fills the ice cream store, and Agatha’s senses go into overdrive in such an authentic way that the story’s inversion from harmless teen playfulness to one of survival feels genuine. As Agatha reacts, readers will wonder how they might react to a similar threat. And like the main character, Agatha, we may find out we are more complex than we gave ourselves credit for.
“Mount Bonnell,” set in Austin, Texas, takes us into the intimacy of a make-shift family composed of stepsister, stepbrother and of respective parents. Stacy Austin Egan, deftly eases us into the realism of family dynamics when people who are not related must find a way to bond, and how that can go wrong. The main character, Lex, as is consistent with the other stories here, is a young naïve woman confronted with the uncomfortable transition from childhood concerns to adult behavior and consequences. She is not yet sixteen and relies on her stepbrother, Will, to drive her around and in general to keep an eye on her while their newly married respective parents are enjoying their romance, oblivious to what is going on with their blended family. This story, a visit to past choices, possible regrets, is the most claustrophobic of all the stories. Claustrophobic because in memory we are limited to the scope of that specific time and space and we can’t escape what happened—we can’t control the past. Consistent with Ms. Austin Egan’s style, there is a brief slip into the future, “At fifteen, I think that I am smart; that if I can expect less from people, then I can’t be hurt by them.” The adult reads her life backwards trying to find the moment the wound was inflicted, and the consequences began to bloom into adult awareness.
The lasting ache of growing out of the teen years, into early adulthood and then into an older adult perspective, focuses and grounds this engaging prose chapbook. Skillful characterization, lyrical language, and spot-on dialogue encourage re-reading of these four stories. I recommend this book for those who are past the gauntlet of teen and young adult choices, but it would also be worthwhile sharing with the young adults in your life and may start conversations that can lead to new insights.
You Could Stop It Here, by Stacy Austin Egan. PANK Books, May 2018. 52 pages. $12.00, paper.
Kim Loomis-Bennett is a life-long resident of the Pacific Northwest where she lives with her family. Her poems and book reviews have appeared in The November 3rd Club, The Copperfield Review, Poet’s Quarterly, Hippocampus Magazine, and The Prose-Poem Project. Her most recent work is included online at The Far Field.