Review of “Pagans” by Rick Bass, published in his 2006 collection The Lives of Rocks

I realize the tardiness of this post fifteen years late, and later still my finding of Rick Bass’s stories, but does it really matter? I still re-read Lorrie Moore’s and Amy Hempel’s early work with the jaw-dropping awe it inspires and I imagine I’ll do the same now with Bass. This realization, this discovery, is what led me to write about the opening story of Bass’s collection. I’m not even halfway through the book (I’m reading the collection for the first time), but I wanted to make mention of “Pagans” because of its unique point-of-view and rumination on memory and choices, and the sheer unbelievability of who we are and where we are thirty years after an indelible high school experience.

The story, rich in details, features the lives of Richard, Kirby, and Annie. Richard and Kirby are best friends and Annie, a grade younger, finds herself in the middle of their adventures. Their adventures take them to what is essentially an environmental disaster area — a polluted river where they explore “junked cars, twisted steel scrap, rusting slag-heaped refrigerators,” dead animals, and more.

The environmental degradation of this area outside Houston is secondary to the relational dynamics between the three, but this isn’t a typical love story. We find out in the first paragraph that this is a “less common variation on that ancient story” because Annie ultimately doesn’t choose either boy with whom to spend her life. Instead, “she [chose] a third, and lived happily ever after.” The beginning of the story is built on a too-common ending of the fairy tale we’re all used to reading (…and they lived happily ever after.). And thank God for Bass’s deviation which isn’t at all a deviation in real life.

And so what do we do with these relationships of our past? How do we learn from and reflect on them with the meaning they deserve without anchoring ourselves to the sinking ship of nostalgia? This essentially is what Bass is exploring. “Even now, Richard thinks [he and Annie] missed each other by a hair’s breadth, that some sort of fate was deflected… He thinks it might have been one of the closest misses in the history of the world.” All told as a matter-of-fact and without any hint of regret.

Put the relationships aside for a moment and imagine all the micro, last-minute choices we’ve made that have now impacted our lives in profound ways. How grateful for that decision to turn left. Or to take an improv class. Or to go on that date. Or to plant an apple tree. Or to visit mother. Or to take a vacation. Or to cook Thai curry for the first time. The list goes on forever, but I think we can all look back at these moments — small or otherwise — that have shaped who we are today. How fortunate, or not, we might feel in light of those decisions. This is not profound stuff, necessarily, it’s simply life. But I think this is why I liked “Pagans” so well. Bass immerses us so fully in the lives of these three characters that their cares and concerns and ruminations on choice and memory become as meaningful to us as they are to Richard who, by the end of the story, “marvels… at all the paths they did not take.”

Review of “Mouse House” by Amelia Brown, published in Four Way Review

We meet all relevant characters in the first section: our first-person narrator along with her boyfriend, Eddie, and Eddie’s mother (Susan). We’re also introduced to a mouse along with the home in which this story takes place. It’s Susan’s home located in sprawling bucolic Maine where everything is quaint and perfect and people keep tea times (and probably tee times). We’re also “two hours north of [the couple’s] cluttered apartment in Boston” where they probably don’t attend open houses just to see “decorated parlors” and “underground entertainment systems” which is Susan’s idea of an ideal afternoon.

The story deftly juxtaposes the narrator’s modest upbringing (with the “broken-down Mazda…in the backyard”) and Eddie’s mother’s tea time expectations (not that the two are mutually exclusive). And this alone would be a compelling story full of conflict and compelling situations between the three characters, but the event that propels this piece forward is a game of cat and mouse. Remember that pesky mouse we meet upon arrival from cramped Boston to sprawling Maine? Susan says, “…something has to be done about this mouse.” Susan is not keen on keeping company with rodents, but instead of using a traditional mousetrap, the narrator convinces them to use a live-catch trap. The next morning Susan fetches a “box trap” so the narrator won’t “feel guilty.”

With this goal of catching the mouse, a series of extraordinary—though bizarre—events take place. I won’t mention any of them to you. They’re just too good to name on this page, and so you’ll have to read them for yourself. A small clue: the events in question show in clear detail how out of touch with reality the potential future mother-in-law has become.

This is a fascinating story. I couldn’t stop reading.

Amelia Brown’s essays and reviews have been published at the Masters Review, CRAFT Literary, Full Stop, and the Ploughshares blog. She lives and writes in Boston.

Review of “Water in the Blood” by Megan Pillow, published in Triquarterly

Mother’s Day was over a week ago, but perhaps we ought to do ourselves a favor and read “Water in the Blood” by Megan Pillow, a story, essentially, about everything going to shit—when your world, dreams, husband, and own body fail you, what’s bound to happen? This is Laura’s story. To say Laura is under a lot of stress would be a sick understatement, and this story is a cautionary tale of what happens to a mother (or parent) under constant barrage from all people and situations in her life.

In grad school, one of my teachers used to talk about stories as nothing more than mounting pressure on a protagonist. Put the protagonist in a vice and keep turning until the character or the vice breaks. I was reminded of this astute writerly advice while reading Pillow’s story. Her main character, Laura, is stuck at home, but it’s a new home in a new neighborhood where she knows virtually no one, while her husband is literally halfway across the globe in “fucking Antarctica” romping around and writing “beautiful” articles about his adventures. But Laura, we understand, is a better writer: “You would’ve done better,” the husband writes back after Laura reads one of his newly posted articles. Perhaps she’s the one who should’ve penned the article. Perhaps she’s the one who should be out galivanting around the arctic ice and writing about her adventures while waiting for shout-outs from adoring fans: “Take me on your next adventure?” writes queenbey9122 to Laura’s husband.

Meanwhile, Laura’s taking care of three kids and trying not to bleed out. Her last pregnancy and delivery left her with complications spurred on perhaps in part by a condescending male doctor who, of course, knew what was best for her. All the while, as all of this plays out, “There’s something in the woods behind the house” and a Florida storm is brewing.

The brilliance of this story is the melding together of all of these mounting pressures. It isn’t simply one of these conflicts that’ll break our narrator; instead, what Pillow’s showing us is what happens to someone who is under constant micro and macro attacks at all times and from those who should be there to help and support (the doctor, the husband), but there’s no one to help. Only her and her three needy children, one of whom was born only months ago.

We return now to the original question – what’s bound to happen to someone in this situation? When “…she is a great white-hot mass of rage, and she can feel the small dark thing opening its maw, and then she clamps it shut again.” What happens when she can’t “clamp it shut”? When the protagonist’s anguish and frustration are simply too much? Megan Pillow shows us the answer, but you’ll have to read the story to find out. Here’s a hint: Grab your personal flotation device and maybe an extra oar.

Check out this fantastic, heart-wrenching story here.

Megan Pillow is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in, among other places, Electric Literature, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, The Believer, Brevity, and Gay Magazine. Megan has also had stories featured on the Wigleaf Top 50, an essay honored as notable in the 2019 edition of The Best American Essays, and a story honored as distinguished in the 2020 edition of The Best American Short Stories. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her two children.

Review of “Good Teeth” by Leslie Walker Trahan, published in New Delta Revew

Good Teeth” was the 2020 winner of the Ryan R. Gibbs Award for Flash Fiction. After reading the piece, you’ll understand why. My brief review here:

This story is tied together by braided storylines with a compelling sense of time and excellent use of white space. The braids include: A creepy dentist/landlord. The narrator’s obsession with a stranger – a man – who may or may not exist. And the narrator’s deceased father. The two men — the stranger and the father — look alike and share a love of the violin. We see wonderful images and details that lend credibility to this: callouses on fingers, the “sleek neck of the violin case.” Meanwhile, the dentist gives a “months free rent” to the narrator if she goes out on a date with him. He also gives her free exams—sticks his fingers in her mouth and talks while the narrator “…[doesn’t] say a word.”

Throughout this very peculiar piece, the observations coupled with the braided storylines are enough to signal the alarm, but then we find out more of the narrator’s frame of mind through conversations between the narrator and her sister who asks: “Have you been taking your meds?” We hear that question a couple times, once near the beginning, and once at the end, and by the second time, we too wonder how much help this narrator might need. We readers aren’t exactly sure. But we do know one thing: we won’t call the dentist to come help.

Read and listen to the perfectly crafted and detailed story here.

Leslie Walker Trahan’s stories have been featured in The Forge and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other publications. She lives in Austin, Texas. You can find her on Twitter @lesliewtrahan.

Flash Friday Review: “The Little Details” by Jody Keene, published in JMWW

A familiar story: a wife endures the daily grind—kids who don’t clean up, a husband too forgetful (and maybe unmotivated) to change the kitty litter, and a host of other things that add up. But “he’s a good man, your husband;” the narrator says, attempting, perhaps, to convince herself. There’s a sadness in this piece made more so by the two coyotes shot and killed by the husband (opening line: “Your husband is in the garage with two dead coyotes.”). One of them, pregnant, with “stones in her belly now rather than pups.” This—a revenge killing for the two coyotes allegedly killing Juno, the family’s dog (“…pieces of her all along the creek bank. The steam from her innards drifted over the water, away from you.”). All of this intermixed with memories tied to motherhood, as the narrator recalls breastfeeding, her children at her chest—how fleeting, abrupt, a life can be. Narrated in the second person, the story takes us through a circumstance not unfamiliar to most who endure the daily grind where the saving thought or hope, on a particular day, is how the stylist might cut one’s hair; when the one strong emotion emerges from being “determined not to let the stylist talk you into bangs this time.”

Check out the story here.

Jody Keene is a writer and social media coordinator living in Little Rock with her family and as many dogs as possible at any given time. Her work has previously appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine.