“A Disquieting Truth in Broken Hearts”: Robert Crooke Reviews PROOF OF ME & OTHER STORIES by Erica Plouffe Lazure

In subtly connected tales of life in a small, Eastern North Carolina town, Erica Plouffe Lazure writes as if sharing yarns about her own extended family. She knows her people that well. And she has Eudora Welty’s sense of the way people and places determine each other’s fate.

Thus, a naturalist’s field excursion in “Spawning Season” assumes a metaphorical dimension:

Murphy hitched up the rowboat trailer to his pickup and headed out to the estuary to listen to the spotted sea trout prepare to spawn at Rose Bay Creek, near the mouth of the Neuse River. Out past Mewborn, on the way to Little Washington, the highway shifts from a four-way freeway to a rinky-dink back road that carves through the dormant downtowns of Grimesland and Chocowinity. Out on the highway, mixed in with the run-down farmer’s mansions and trailer parks, were acres of bright leaf tobacco, about a dozen churches, and the occasional doublewide strip joint. He drove by the Piggly Wiggly Plaza and saw on the marquee Gwaltney sausage for sale. He took in the advice of backlit signs from strip mall churches:

“What’s missing in Ch__ch? UR!”

“Evolution is a Religion, not a science.”

Her work is often about people trying, imperfectly, to extricate themselves from their own lives. In “Heirloom” a dead mother’s wristwatch, her teenage daughter’s baby, and a confrontation with a nasty aunt, turn a bitter wake into a way forward. In the aforementioned “Spawning Season” the single-minded biology professor, who studies the mating habits of insects and fish, fumbles a rare opportunity to do a little human courting. And a stubborn bar-band musician gets an abrupt lesson in love and success from his fed up, songwriting girlfriend in “The Ghost Rider.”

Several Lazure stories are built on a visitation of disaster or violence that incites an important realization or resolves a dilemma with blunt finality. A distracted ex-GI, in “Cadence,” mortally injures himself at work after a girlfriend’s sudden rejection. The teenage mother in “Heirloom” gets slapped for sassing her nasty aunt, but slaps her back in a surprising act of self-realization:

It’s beside the point to say that she slapped my face for my sass, and called me a “no-good whore,” no doubt waiting a long time for the chance to do both. And to my surprise, I slapped back. One solid slap echoing another, and the glower of red on my face held longer than it took for me to reach my room, where little Cassidy, hungry for her milk, fell silent in my presence.  

And in “The Shit Branch” an older woman is slapped hard by a drunken husband, on Christmas night, yet somehow finds the strength to rally her children that night and during the months it takes to resolve her family’s predicament. Lazure’s affinity with the clarifying effect of explosive emotion may remind a reader of Flannery O’Connor.

The Cass character, who features as the infant in “Heirloom,” a little girl in “The Duck Walk,” a rambunctious teen with artistic interests in “Selvage,” and a confused girlfriend in “Gestate,” is the central figure of the title story. Set in San Francisco, this tale has Cass exploring offbeat forms of sculpture and body art, while Lazure’s themes of provisional decision making, wanderlust, and fluid sexuality coalesce in a humorous yet melancholy portrait of youthful dissatisfaction.

That evening, Cass began to draw tattoo contenders in her plain-paper notebook, and after a week went straight to her body. She’d use a Sharpie marker to draw symmetrical, looping patterns below her navel. A daisy chain down her arm. A sprawling cat on her calf. Once she wrote across her clavicle, “Make no stray marks.” Once she drew a pencil thin moustache on her upper lip. She grew tired of each design just as the natural cycle of showers and the slough of skin made them disappear.

Dissatisfaction surfaces again in “Marchers” and “Shad Daze,” when a high school beauty queen’s sexual indiscretion with an older man leads to shock, shame, and community outrage. As Sissy struggles to keep her self-esteem intact and her wild streak in check, bitterness, regret, and bad luck seem to follow in her wake:

Noah leaned against the steel rail of Porter Bridge as Sissy reached the river’s lip and waded in. He wanted to call out to her. He wanted her life to be easier; better. But he couldn’t find the words—not yet, anyway—to let Sissy know that, as she swam upstream in the rolling current of the Neuse, naked and alone, that he was watching over her, anxious in the moonlight, waiting for her return.

Again and again, with compassion, Erica Plouffe Lazure finds a disquieting truth in broken hearts and thwarted dreams.

Proof of Me & Other Stories won the New American Fiction Prize in 2020.

Proof of Me & Other Stories, by Erica Plouffe Lazure. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: New American Press, March 2022. 252 pages. $17.00, paper.

Robert Crooke’s poetry has been published in the West Hills Review: A Walt Whitman Journal, and his short fiction has appeared in The Paragon JournalLiterary Orphans Journal, and Linden Avenue Literary Journal. His latest novel, Letting the House Go, will be published in August 2022 by Unsolicited Press.

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