For thirteen summers, I rose early every morning for swim practice. I relished watching the sun rise as I did my laps, listening to the last early birdsong as the neighborhood stirred awake, pacing myself by the slow, steady wake of the swimmer in front of me as my mind wandered, pondering the big questions of my life. Robert Wallace is also drawn to water in a new short story collection As Breaks the Wave Upon the Sea. In “A Kayaker’s Guide to the Pungo River” he writes: “Some people felt a pull for the water. Any water would do. The sea especially had its converts. Winsome had never felt that mystery. Except for walking unfamiliar streets, mystery had never mattered to him, and he wondered if that was a failing in him. Kayaking had changed everything he felt about water.” The eight short stories in Wallace’s collection dive into the changing lives of mostly female narrators moving in and out of grief, hope, and love, like a steady tide upon a distant shore.
While each story offers a key moment with a body of water, Wallace’s landscapes are varied from old Midwest farms to modern New York City highrises, each treated with a keen eye for details to transport us into the time and place. From the opening story, “The Science of Air” we watch a young girl in rural Ohio develop some understanding of her father’s struggles as he cares for her emotionally unwell mother. She imagines him alone in his dark barn, “The light slices over tractors, along the walls and the floor, in front of my father’s shoes and across his face. As the Earth turns, the light changes, ever so slowly, until it moves down his chest, across his heart. As he sits on a hay bale he watches the dust rise from the slits of light. In a corner, on the floor, I imagine dust motes and insects illumined inside circles of light.”
Wallace’s lyrical writing isn’t focused just on emotional connections to the landscape, but rather ripple throughout the stories like a stone skipping across a lake. Each of his narrators uncovers an enormous revelation about their lives through these brief, beautiful flashes into their seemingly ordinary days. Some of the insights help save lives—like that of the former teacher jolted out of a deep depression after the death of his wife in “A Kayaker’s Guide to the Pungo River”—but other pivots force characters to realize upcoming loss.
One of the most poignant stories, “Taking Bright Home” tells of a trip an older couple takes to visit their daughter in North Carolina by way of dropping off a hitchhiker at his clairvoyant mom’s trailer in West Virginia. As the wife Ava readies herself for bed in the motel, her husband Wally rolls over to cuddle, “During that instant I would imagine Wally’s past and present as full and then as if clouds were his memories, the wind would take them away and he’d be left with an empty sky and only pieces of remembered events and fragments.” This future forecast of grief doesn’t sink Ava; rather, through the clever use of list essays that highlight her love for Wally throughout the story, we feel hopeful that Ava’s deep well of feelings will sustain her.
While the psychological revelations throughout the collection are timeless, several of the stories are contemporary, featuring soldiers returning home from the Middle East or, as in the final story “There’s Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You”—take place in the pandemic. Luckily, Wallace refuses to pander to stories ripped from the headlines. Rather, like the many literary American giants he alludes to throughout these pages—Steinbeck, Hemingway, Ginsberg, T.S. Eliot to name a few—Wallace allows the time period to be a backdrop to the present struggles of his characters as they navigate sadness over childless marriages, guilt over past sins, or relationships drifting apart. But, like Wallace’s literary allusions, many of these small commonplace moments also extend out to help define a moment in the larger human experience. In the title story, a returned soldier constantly relives the moment he lost his brother-in-arms to a bomb in one of Wallace’s powerful lists, “And then it’s over. His life. His body. His taste for chili. His fatherhood. His degrees. His voice. His teeth. His persuasive grin. His nightmares. His ugly scar on his lower back. His love of books. His hatred of magazines. His childlike joy in running. His love of coffee. Of movies. The way he stuck a finger into a jar of peanut butter. The southern lilt of his voice when reciting Shakespeare.”
This collection is not one to be read while rushed. It’s best to read the book as I used to swim, letting the work build up slowly, ignoring occasional misstrokes or fumbled flipturns, focusing on the overall process. Wallace’s final story also offers an apt metaphor for a way to read and understand the collection as a character ponders her broken relationship with her disabled sister: “She wonders what lies before them. […] And this, she realizes, is what being a family is all about. It’s about love and grief. It’s about putting grief into a shell, and when you want to listen to it, you put it to your ear. You hear the sounds of surf, the splash of salty water, and you can conjure up whatever images you need […]” And we’re happy to pick up this shell and explore the ocean of Wallace’s imagination, no matter what he brings us.
As Breaks the Wave Upon the Sea, by Robert Wallace. Charlotte, North Carolina: The Main Street Rag, May 2021. 136 pages. $16.95, paper.
Maria Judnick teaches in the English and Environmental Studies departments at Santa Clara University while working part-time as the digital projects coordinator for the San Jose State Writing Center. She has been published in academic (most recently, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy) and literary (including Gemini Magazine) journals. She previously freelanced for KQED Pop! and the arts section of the Santa Clara Weekly.