I can see evidence of divinity in a cow pie, and again in the maggots that devour it,” the driver of a “pickup truck with a homemade camper stuck on the back” tells the young hitchhiker he has picked up in the “Horizontal Snow.” “I can see the Lord in all of it,” he says. “In every piece of flotsam and jetsam, in every gnat and mosquito – there He is, doing business like He has every day for twenty billion years. History means nothing to Him. Yours, mine, or that of the damn fool nations.”
He’s a convicted killer named Willie Lot who accepts no blame for his crime. “‘The man I killed was a two-legged lamprey,’ Lot said. ‘He attached himself to the helpless underbelly of good-hearted people and sucked their lifeblood from them until they were pale effigies of their former selves. He would fill his nothingness with their somethingness. He was a con artist who had taken my daddy’s last dime for an electrical arthritis cure, coupled with painful injections of a useless saline solution. Can you blame me?'” The young narrator, a college dropout who had “lost [his] interest in both vector analysis and differential equations,” refuses to lay blame. Instead, in a stunning scene he delivers the baby of a twenty-year-old woman who lies in the camper.
She let go of my hand and I moved down the foot of the bunk and peered between her upraised knees. There, at the dark joining of her thighs, was a little face. It looked like a dried apple. Crimped as it was in those bearded jaws, it looked Chinese and ancient. Its eyes were shut tight, the mouth a stubborn line. The unbreathing nose was flat and wide. The idea occurred to me that this wasn’t an infant at all but a tiny old man who had serious second thoughts about the wisdom of leaving the comfortable and nourishing dark for the starved light of North Dakota. The notion made me smile. “Welcome home, chump,” I whispered.
Rick DeMarinis, a longtime El Pasoan who now lives in Montana, also sees divinity in every piece of flotsam and jetsam to have populated his very singular vision of America in the latter half of the twentieth century. But, unlike Willie Lot, whose meditations at the state prison farm led him to “holy light,” DeMarinis is joyously agnostic. He is also gloriously funny, and funny at several levels. He can be wicked, caustic, ironic, or benign, but humor is at the heart of his large vision. Still, the comic sensibility often unsettles people. How can the divine and the profane fuse in such a hilarious mess?
“It seemed to me that all the people I had been with were puppets to a hidden agony,” the narrator of “Pagans” thinks to himself, “and [they] could not find simple peace until the puppet master had lost interest in them.” DeMarinis brilliantly excavates the “hidden agonies” that lie just below the jokes the world plays on his characters. The results, brought together in this career-synthesizing collection of stories, Borrowed Hearts, land him on the shelf right next to Flannery O’Connor, another writer who shined a divine light on ordinary saints and sinners.
If DeMarinis is not as well know as O’Connor, he should be. What has kept him from this level of recognition – richly deserved – is, I believe, his comic agnosticism. O’Connor never hid her Catholicism and, even while it ignites and occasionally burdens her vision, it makes her explorations of the grotesque and the violent conveniently allegorical. Readers have a theological map with which to make their way through
O’Connor’s comic landscape. DeMarinis’ agnosticism verges on the pantheistic in its gentler form, on Darwinian stoicism in its more bracing embodiment. At the close of the astonishing story “Fault Lines,” the main character, who has just made love to his wife after a period of estrangement (during which she had taped shut their son’s mouth with duct tape), looks down at his sleeping son. “The boy was a simple expression of blood, bone, and flesh, forged in starlight and gravity,” he thinks. He kisses his son’s forehead, then steps out into the backyard. “The rain clouds had passed, the moonless winter night was strung with stars. He lit his cigarette and said a small prayer. Not of thanks but of acknowledgement. The universe did not require his gratitude. It was unholy and grand and without fault. Alfredo blew a lungful of smoke into his corner of it.”
This is DeMarinis’ vision of the divine. It’s less comforting and accommodating than O’Connor’s dogmatic march toward salvation, and almost out of place in our Jesus-saturated culture. Its true forbears are our great nineteenth-century transcendentalists, Hawthorne and Melville. Borrowed Hearts, including twenty-one stories drawn from three previous books as well as eleven new stories, finally offers readers a map with which to chart DeMarinis’ territory: terrain that is darkly comic, generous toward its characters, and always guided by a narrative eye trained simultaneously on the awful and the sublime.
A scalpel-sharp introduction to this territory comes in the first story, “Under the Wheat.” Its narrator, unhappily married, living in a trailer and scraping out a living “under the wheat” in an I.C.B.M. missile silo, says, “I tell her the story about the motor pool secretary who shot her husband once in the neck and twice in the foot with a target pistol while he slept. Both of them pulling down good money, too.” DeMarinis’ early stories focus on gritty survivors, laborers desperate to earn a buck. But the glimmerings of his Darwinian objectivity are already in place. Cobb, the murdering salesman in “The Smile of a Turtle,” a story that compares with O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” works for Jake the Distributor, who “has this theory. He thinks every man and woman is an animal at heart. We respond, he says, to the animal in each other.”
As DeMarinis’ comic vision deepens, desperation trails his characters into their bedrooms. In “The Handgun,” a disintegrating marriage held together by Seconal and Elavil is saved by the purchase of a gun. The wife can’t stand the dog that barks every night at 3 a.m. and informs her husband that if he doesn’t buy a gun and shoot the thing, she’ll find another bed to sleep in. When he brings home a .22 and hands it to her he thinks, “She looked haggard sitting at the kitchen table, holding the pistol in one hand and sorting through bullets with the other. Then she put the gun and bullets in one messy pile and shoved them to the center of the table. She stood up and hugged me. ‘I am so proud of you at this moment,’ she said.” As the narrator notes, “A distinct warpage had entered our lives.” DeMarinis finds this warpage in characters who can’t believe it exists within themselves. “Your Burden is Lifted, Love Returns” begins in the first person. “I lie on the nail-bed of my life still believing I am a good-hearted sensitive man who would never beat his wife. You know my type: the afflicted, backsliding liberal, self-aware to a fault – narcissistic my shrink would say – but above all, not a man who would pound a woman with his fist.” Then, in a seamless twist, the story shifts to third person. It’s a magnificent strategy, allowing the main character to elicit the reader’s sympathy at the same time that he is seen through the wife’s eyes.
“Better to be in exile sustained by a dream of home than to endure the disappointments of home itself,” Willie Lot tells his young hitchhiker. “Home itself is an ideal that never measures up. I speak from experience.” DeMarinis has the authority of voice to convince readers that he does too. But, desperate as they may sometimes be, his characters never succumb to despair or induce it in the reader. “‘I saw defeat in your posture while you were standing out there in the elements with your thumb out. I said to myself, Lot, there is a young buck who has been in the toilet. There is a boy who hit bottom but did not bounce. Am I wrong?'” Yes. The narrator does not see himself as “bad off.”
This Emersonian self-reliance fully unfolds in the eleven new stories. In them we are able to see DeMarinis’ territory, its topography and its smallest details, from the proper distance with which to appreciate it. The new work is superb, its comedy opening out into awe. Desperation has evolved into cosmic bemusement. “I think the Nigerian wants his heart back,” the beneficiary of a recent transplant tells another character who has completely lost his sense of smell. “Jesus, I hope this time they give me the heart of a goddamn Swede. Swedes don’t believe in ghosts, do they, Captain? The Nigerian’s calling it in.… He can’t travel without his heart.” Guns and the battle of the sexes still appear, as in “A Romantic Interlude,” a great riff on John Cheever’s classic story, “The Five-Forty-Eight.” In DeMarinis’ version, a woman abused by men shoots a barroom flirt whom she follows out back near the train tracks. As he lies there bleeding, “[T]he afternoon Amtrak clattered frantically across the trestle. Passengers in the Sightseer Lounge waved at them. They believed they were witnessing a picturesque southwestern tryst – secret lunchtime lovers meeting at the bottom of a charming arroyo.”
But it is our sublime, if not religious, connection to the universe that illuminates DeMarinis’ mature vision, demonstrated with masterful effect in the volume’s closing story aptly named “The Singular We.” Fern Applegate is diagnosed as having a “large mass in the sella turcica, above and behind the sphenoid sinus, camped at the base of her brain and engulfing the pituitary gland.” As always, DeMarinis’ precision with details is flawless, and he uses it to reach grand heights. “Fern ardently believes she is unique: medical science tells her she is not. One femur is virtually indistinguishable from another.… A knuckle is a knuckle, be it Hittite, Hottentot, Mongol, Inuit, or WASP.… Superficial features aside, we are one body. Individuality, the doctors know, is a romantic myth, a useful energizing principle in politics and the arts. In the operating room surgeons count on the reliability of sameness. They do not want surprises when they open a chest cavity to replace wheezing ventricles with sturdy replacements….”
Fern, being a nonsmoking, nondrinking New Age vegan, decides to see a curandera near Saltillo, Mexico, who believes that “every human body is unique, despite the convincing similarities. Sameness is the superficial reality that hides the peculiar twists and turns your physiology has been forced to take by a spirit world of good and bad influences. Every diseased organ is diseased because it was the recipient of a dark romance that must be exposed by a darker romance….” Señora Montes passes a black chicken over Fern’s head, then an eagle feather, and finally touches “Fern’s forehead with an egg. The cool egg drew on the skin of her forehead, drew on the bones and the sinus cavities inside the bones, and touched something even deeper. La limpia, the cleansing, was now complete.” Fern has been purged of her shadow, the second self lurking inside each of us.
The story closes with the patronizing surgeon and Fern disagreeing. “The magic of modern chemistry,” he tells her, after the tumor problem is resolved.
“Fern did not abuse him of this notion.
“She now knows that she is both unique and common. She accepts this paradox. It is, after all, only one more paradox in life’s massive catalogue of paradoxes. In sameness is ordinary immortality. In uniqueness, the singularities of beauty and death.”
Rick DeMarinis’ fiction accepts these paradoxes as well, and does so with a spirit generous enough not to disabuse readers less agnostic than his various narrators. His is a comic art that arcs toward transcendence. Collected here in one volume it can now be seen as one of the most vital accomplishments of the short story in our times.
Tom Grimes directs the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Southwest Texas State University, and is the author of three novels. He has edited The Writer’s Workshop: Fiction and Essays on the Writing Life from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (of which he is an alumnus), forthcoming from Hyperion.