Us Against the World
I often think that a man who tells stories and makes sketches for a living must still be a kid at heart, an idealist insisting on symmetry and balance, even when they’re hard to find,” remarks one of the narrators in Tracy Daugherty’s new collection, Late in the Standoff. Perhaps it’s useful to regard this comment as a sort of ars poetica for Daugherty himself: Not only does it explain why his stories move the way they do, it’s also possible to hear in it the echo of an apology, the author acknowledging his tendency to exit these tales on notes more peaceful than they are plausible.
There could be worse impulses for an author to have. And it cannot be said that the world Daugherty paints is rosy. On the contrary, each of the stories in this collection presents characters tossed about not only by their personal lives but also by the unrelenting motion of history. “Lamplighter,” the opening story, follows a young girl spending Christmas with her grandmother’s family in Oklahoma. Her father is fighting in Korea; her mother, predictably, is wringing Kleenex and generally being distant and unavailable. Though the scenario is accurate enough, the piece is an unfortunate opening to the collection, packed with meticulously described yet overly sweetened, sentimental images: general stores, porch swings, lemonade, and taffy candy. The story’s somber conclusion relies on the appearance of a kindly acquaintance dressed as Saint Nick, which raises the nostalgia level so conspicuously that the reader might begin to fear she’s about to be sold a Coca-Cola. Fortunately, none of the other pieces in the collection are quite so mired in nostalgia, and the next story jumps forward in time and down to Texas for a considerably more interesting tale.
Here, instead of cookie-tin Americana, Daugherty offers us a young protagonist whose life is being dismantled-literally and figuratively-by adulthood, which invades his young consciousness in the form of Playboy magazines and political assassinations, as well as in the romantic advances of the girl next door. As the narrator explains, she “had begun to look at me as though I were one of the colts she coveted in Horse Fancy magazine.” He is fascinated yet ambivalent: “What did I want to do with that? Something, maybe. But I didn’t know for sure.”
When the narrator’s confusion turns to cruelty, we sense that we’re in the hands of a fearlessly honest storyteller. Just as he’s earned this trust, though, Daugherty seems to retreat, leaping forward in time to render the story’s final moments in a kind of sepia-toned, overly softened light, a move that collapses the story’s complicated psychology into something far less dangerous. Still, Daugherty has created a powerful story, whose characters manage to survive their creator’s urge to tie up loose ends.
A native of Texas who now directs the MFA program at the University of Oregon, Daugherty is the author of two other collections of short stories as well as several novels, including The Boy Orator (1999), based on his grandfather’s political career and set in the first half of the 20th century. In “The Standoff,” the third story of his latest collection, Daugherty revisits that character through the eyes of his grandson. Not surprisingly, the politician’s radical roots have been corrupted by a lifetime of compromise. This is a theme with potential, but the story leans heavily on flashbacks and on clunky, pedantic dialogue: “If you don’t like your government’s policies, you work within the system to change them. This maverick stuff, Pancho, it’s useless and dangerous.” Unfortunately, the grandfather comes across as a bit of a cardboard character, possibly because Daugherty is so familiar with him-from the novel and from his own experience.
The final two stories jump forward to the present day. “City Codes,” which pits ordinary people against an unwelcome developer, is not only surprisingly suspenseful but also feels effortless, gently humorous, and utterly contemporary, with characters who are caught up in the sweet sadness of finding love at the same time that they are facing death. Of course, they are destined to lose the battle against the developers, just as they will ultimately lose the battle against time-but they refuse to feel defeated. By now the “insistence”-to use Daugherty’s own word-on ending each piece with the triumph, however momentary, of optimism has become so conspicuous that we’re forced to contemplate the author’s intentions. It would appear that Daugherty is trying to teach something here, an attitude about what it takes to survive in the world. Unfortunately, his message at times seems so damnably cheerful-the literary equivalent of a total stranger telling you to “buck up”-that a reader could react to it with either gratitude or hostility, depending on her mood.
Engaging the political is admirable, but doing so in the short story form can present considerable challenges. Since details of place and time can’t recede from the foreground to imbue the narrative the way they might in a novel, historical drama and individual action vie for the reader’s attention. A parallel competition exists between present action and recollection: Heavy on the driving-around-thinking side, the pieces sometimes come across as lightweight in terms of immediate character conflict. The overall effect is a kind of narrative choppiness, a sensation of being told too much that is exacerbated by characters saying things like (in reference to George W.): “Oil was his bathwater. Privilege his soap. What the hell did he know about race and class?”
The second half of the book is devoted to a somewhat curious novella, “Anna Lia.” The title refers to the sexy young Italian woman who-as the police are ‘only too eager to inform her friends-was in the process of building a bomb when it accidentally detonated. The friends resist the official conclusion, and the novella chronicles their individual struggles to understand what really did happen.Set in a vividly described Houston, the novella is a mystery of sorts, not because it offers clues that lead to any resolution-indeed, the clues, such as they are, achieve the opposite effect-but because it dwells in the unknowable that is another person. Anna Lia’s husband, friends, and ex-lovers try to re-imagine her as someone who could do such a thing. Meanwhile, the violence surrounding her death continues to reverberate through their lives. If all this sounds interesting, that’s because it is. Yet the novella’s initial unfolding is hindered by some unfortunate narrative choices.
To begin with, a large number of characters are introduced very quickly, and the reader isn’t sure who might ultimately be important and who’s simply there for atmosphere. Inconsistent references increase the confusion. Additionally, though there are three seemingly “main” characters, only two of them ultimately seem central to the story. Had the author simply eliminated character number three (not to mention some other minor characters), some of this overwhelm might have been avoided. On top of this, Daugherty has chosen to write in a shifting point of view, sometimes close to one character and sometimes close to another, that further disorients a reader who is already struggling to understand whose story this really is.
Anna Lia herself is another problem. The series of flashbacks that reveal her are heavy on dialogue, giving them a stilted, perfect-recall artificiality. Despite character after character reflecting on how vivacious she was, how fascinating and fickle and naÃ¯ve, she never feels entirely real. Perhaps this is not a result of her being a poorly drawn character but because it’s difficult to imagine the other characters in the story-who seemed steady, likeable enough folks-having any truck with such a woman. Certainly it’s difficult to mind too terribly the fact that she’s dead.
The novella manages to recover from some serious flaws when it becomes less about Anna Lia and more about the ways in which the steady, likeable characters try to help each other deal with her untimely death. The story shuttles between their inaccessibility and their sweet interdependence and blossoms into a sensitive and perceptive exploration of grief and loss. Although the author still works too hard to craft a resolution that strives for “symmetry and balance,” we can close the book with the sense of having experienced the real depth and messiness of life. Reflecting on the changeable neighborhoods of Houston, one character asks herself: “How did neighborhoods die? AIDS? Price wars? Greedy landlords? As soon as you got chummy with one part of the city, it changed on you.” This, more than anything, is what Daugherty is after: the small spaces we carve out for ourselves, and the ways-fast and slow, by war or by stranger forces-that they are eventually destroyed.
Ameni Rozsa is studying fiction and poetry at UT’s Michener Center for Writers. Her writing has appeared online, in various Austin publications, and on NPR.