In Claire, Wading into the Danube by Night, Jeffrey Condran paints vivid portraits of people who are often neither likeable or unlikable. He takes snapshots of their lives and hands them to us in intimate detail. From an actress who steps into the shoes of someone much more successful than she, to a hostess cake delivery driver, to a twelve-year-old boy in 1983, Condran makes vivid the points at which these people’s lives begin to change and shape who they are.
Condran’s creation of vivid and intimate characters is the centerpiece of each of these stories. Most of the stories in this collection feature a self-obsessed narrator depicted through their own voice. In giving us these characters in their own voices, we are given insight into who these people truly are beyond their self-interest. In “Death of a Writer,” the narrator, who is dealing with the death of his ex-girlfriend’s famous father, states, “I projected myself into the future where the big stone house in Chaumont would become again my second home. That weakened, he would rely on me every afternoon at five to sneak him the martini he considered so important to his well being.” Through Condran’s creation of these fantasies and interactions that the narrator describes, he subtly reveals the narrator’s real concerns that have much more to do with his own agenda and the way he sees himself, rather than any real concern for his ex-girlfriend or her father.
In the same way, Condran focuses on each of the narrator’s perceptions of other characters, carefully using these opportunities to reveal more about each narrator. In the story “Brigadoon,” the narrator, Dean, who has entered into a relationship with a much older woman, describes her: “Dora was incapable of small talk. The briefest mention of family was a judgment on reproduction. Chamber music a vehicle for the discussion of intimacy.” Dean’s vehement romanticization of Dora’s emotional coldness and pretentiousness reveals much more about Dean in this moment than it does of Dora.
Condran also brilliantly renders portraits of genuinely unhappy and unsatisfied people. In “Cupcakes,” Seth evaluates his love life stating, “[t]his is what we’re like. Every day I wonder how we keep it together and in the space of the same thought am so absolutely sure we could never do anything else.” Condran creates these tragic characters who must decide what to do in a moment of change. The tension of these stories is created from the choices these characters must make. These moments are never dramatic or sublime but rather moments that happen in everyday lives. These are decisions and changes that real people make and live with every day.
In this same way, Condran captures snapshots of relationships and of defining moments, even for an entire group of people. In his story “Salt of the Earth,” Condran writes, “[t]here was a celebration. Salvatore sat beside Hannah. No one seemed to care if they ever slept again. Eventually their talk turned to other things, but the intensity of the evening had loosened something in all of them.” In this story of a restaurant experiencing a brief moment of success, Condran captures the intricate intertwining of the lives of people in this environment. Each character is just as important as the next and their success is communal.
Condran’s final, titular story, “Claire, Wading into the Danube by Night,” is the perfect story for this collection to end on as it becomes self-aware of many of the flaws of the narrators of the previous stories. The narrator states, “[i]t was then I realized the tragedy I envisioned was not Claire’s but my own, that by leaving me she didn’t think she was at the end of something—no last breath lying in the dirt among the tall grass, no elegant walk into the river, the water at her knees, then her waist, now her shoulders and finally, rushing over her head to choke the world into a longed-for darkness. That was my fantasy.”
It seems that, in this story, finally, the narrator is seeing the consequences of their self-centeredness, and while many of the stories in this collection seem to neglect their female characters, characterizing them almost solely in their relationships to the male narrators who use them for character growth, “Claire, Wading into the Danube by Night” strays from this in that it becomes self-aware in the end when the narrator acknowledges that his perception of Claire has been entirely his own creation. It is no mistake that this is the conclusion of this collection.
Condran’s stories are an intimate look into the private lives and minds of imperfect characters at significant moments of their lives. Each character he creates is rendered with intention. The moments he captures are relatable and made beautiful in his ability to capture them in such romantic lighting.
Claire, Wading into the Danube by Night, by Jeffrey Condran. Cape Girardeau, Missouri: Southeast Missouri State University Press, March 2020. 192 pages. $18.00, paper.
Hayley Neiling is master’s student of rhetoric and composition at Winthrop University. She lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina. She works for Winthrop’s Writing Center as Assistant Director. She has presented at conferences such as SAMLA, SWCA, and IWCA, and is excited to see where the world of writing takes her.