Great American Desert, by Terese Svoboda. Columbus, Ohio: Mad Creek, March 2019. $15.37, paper.
I was first introduced to Terese Svoboda when I picked up her collection Trailer Girl (Counterpoint, 2001) in a bookstore while I was in graduate school. I still have the hardcover. I was writing my own stories then, but also trying to write a novel for my thesis—well, I thought I was writing a novel, I remember that experience as writing a novel, and for a long time I called it a novel, but it was really a novella. As I started reading through Svoboda’s newest, Great American Desert, I went back to Trailer Girl to see how her work had changed over time, and I realized that I have mis-remembered it as a novel, too.
Because that’s what Svoboda’s stories do: they build. They build on the short and long lines of tension that a novel has to have, they get readers deeply invested in characters, and they bring the reader fully into a world that can both ping with recognition and cause recoil out of strangeness.
Under two hundred pages, Great American Desert holds twenty-one stories, and the collection is organized in a loose chronology, with those stories set in more contemporary times appearing towards the end of the collection and the historical ones appearing first. The threads that knit this book together, however, are probably best described as longing, discomfort, and ties to people.
The opening paragraph in the opening story to this collection, “Camp Clovis,” reads:
Summer camp, boys’ footraces, showing off underwater, crafts with leather, spear point chiseling, campfires—the usual. Even Clovis boys camp, they get so troublesome in the village they are told to spend time elsewhere. Go roughhouse, they are told. Go work on your spear points and don’t bother us.
Svoboda’s characters occupy a continuum that is forever exploring the nature of familial relationships and the ways in which life can be predictably hard. That’s not to suggest that this collection is desolate or depressing. There is a kind of human spirit that punctuates the trying times of particular scenarios but the don’t bother us above is emblematic of the looming quality that many of these stories have, with a just off-stage authority, a threat of consequences.
There is a way that as a reader I was flipping the pages in these stories to find out what would happen next but also thinking oh no no, not that. We actually do have some idea of what is going to happen when the gun is missing, that goes back to Chekov, of course, but at the same time, story is more than just plot and object detail, so turn to the next page anyway, turn to understand this gun, this mantle (or, rather cabinet, in “Seconds”), turn to try to understand this family:
Dad slow-foots it to the lounger. There’s gravy on his white shirt and darkness across his face. He scratches the side of his nose after he’s settled and points at the cabinet on the wall. Wasn’t there something in there?
The son sees the gap, the one empty rack. Sometimes he cleans it, he says.
While there is not a direct connection between the children who are prominent in the opening titles and the adults who punctuate the later ones, it’s not hard to imagine that the kids from “Camp Clovis” or “Dutch Joe” are just different versions of the family in one of the standouts, “Hot Rain”, where siblings reckon with their 91-year-old father who wants a fresh kidney so he can marry one of his former caregivers:
I don’t call my sister back that weekend I know one of the caregivers will return in twelve hours, so her wait will be a kind of late summer thriller deadline where helicopters should be hovering. I take half a sleeping pill instead of worrying, I save the other half to give to my sister at his birthday party.
Svoboda’s canon is extensive and spans work as a poet, novelist, memoirist, short story writer, librettist, translator, biographer, and critic. This background is surfaced in Great American Desert. Despite the messy lives and complicated relationships of her characters, the prose is always tightly controlled in what I think has become her signature style of knife-twisting lyricism and unexpected empathy.
If anything has changed in Svoboda’s work over time, it’s that she’s gotten sharper. The dreamy “this doesn’t happen in real life” quality of some of her earlier work is still there, but instead of being blurred, Great American Desert has the clarity of a vision.
Whether she is writing the challenges of rural and remote places, the difficultly of a parent coming to terms with a child who has done something horrible, the ways that we are tested as our loved ones age, or the disconnect between the sheer beauty of the world we inhabit and the physical and emotional violence we bring to this world as humans, in Great American Desert, Terese Svoboda provides an unflinching eye and a sharp take on the interplay between lofty desire and the mundane of the every day.
Wendy J. Fox is the author most recently of the novel If the Ice Had Held. Writing from Denver, CO and tweeting from @wendyjeanfox.