Book Review

Peeking in Windows


“My brother and I are one body–like good man and good wife. One flesh, one blood here battling from loyalty of heart and doing itself much harm.”

— Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170-1220) quoted in “One Flesh, One Blood.”

Reading Scott Blackwood’s short stories made me feel as if I were peering over my back fence into the dark recesses of other peoples’ lives–lives unraveling out of control. Each of the nine pieces in this well-written and aptly titled first collection takes place on home ground. In an ordinary Austin neighborhood a man watches his wife and her lover carry her belongings away from his house; a pregnant adolescent attends Lamaze classes with her father; a man receives a phone call from a woman who tells him she’s calling about his wife: “She’s having a relationship with my husband.” Characters such as these tend to remind us of people we know or, more to the point, of the darker side of people who, in some ways, are disconcertingly like ourselves.

Much as we are offered furtive glimpses into the lives of strangers, the protagonists here also observe each other. (This, after all, is the stuff of gossip.) In “Prodigal Fathers” a man tells friends about a waitress whom he has learned is Lee Harvey Oswald’s daughter. As she serves him a drink he catches sight of a framed newspaper photo of Jack Ruby shooting her father: “I’ve seen that image, I guess, a hundred times. It never meant anything to me. A famous man, getting shot. That’s all. I didn’t know him. But at first, sitting at the bar, I couldn’t look her in the eye… I felt like I’d cheated or something. Like I’d peeked in her window.” That sense of cheating, of peeking in the window links all these stories, as does their shared geography and, on occasion, the same minutely conceived characters.

The narrator of the title story, which opens the book, is an unidentified neighbor. He sets the tone for the entire collection when he refers, early on, to a flock of macaws who patrol the neighborhood: “Intelligent, rare creatures… [who] live in the shadow of our house… What might they tell us?” In so doing, he presents a bird’s eye view of a microcosm and its inhabitants.

The birds belong to Odie Dodd, a retired government physician formerly stationed in Georgetown, Guyana, and the first person to stumble–literally–over the bodies of Jim Jones and his disciples following their mass suicide, an event which has become the “axis around which [his] life winds.” But, in much the same way, all the experiences recounted here have, or will, become a life’s axis.

The stories share other elements as well. Much as a piece of music is linked by recurrent themes, common literary motifs crop up insistently. Blackwood introduces fire and blood imagery in several stories and employs, for lack of a better word, cannibalistic references, which imply a natural law at work: All creatures feed off one another. When the title story refers to the Tonkawa Indians, for example, it is precisely in such a context: “This is why, when they ate their captured enemies, the Comanches, as they often did, pregnant women were given the largest portions. Courage and strength. That is what they hoped to swallow.” In “Worry,” one of three linked stories, two adolescents speak of catching fish which may have fed off a drowned boy. “We’d be cannibals eating them, I said.” In the same story a character, a cook in an Indian restaurant, thinks “…that just as he had prepared their food, they, in turn, were being prepared for God’s terrible appetite. That one day God would lift them up, eat them like nan.”

In each piece, one or more characters become the victim of events beyond his or her control, arising–as in all great tragedy–from a flaw in judgment, a personal frailty, or the inability to react to a chain of circumstances. “Nostalgia,” for example, features a protagonist who loses his wife and his eye–the physical loss a consequence of some more fundamental failing. “Sometimes what you’re thinking can’t be dove-tailed with what you do,” he remarks.

However, Odie Dodd’s downfall is an exception. More than most of Blackwood’s characters, he is a victim of circumstance and, given his nature, is overcome by guilt. Now old and ill, Odie has wandered away from his home in his bare feet and the local lawyer, Dennis Lipsey, around whom a second narrative unfolds, initiates a search. Save for the proximity of their houses and the condition of their suffering, these two accounts, though part of the same story, are seemingly unrelated.

What unites the title story and each of the other narratives is the sense that we are a party to some inevitable and, ultimately, irrevocable event. In the title story, for example, we are told, in reference to Odie: “The feeling was as in a dream when you know a terrible thing is about to happen but you are helpless to prevent it. But of course the thing had already happened.”

Blackwood, an acute observer of human nature, is the coordinator of the Undergraduate Writing Center at the University of Texas. His strength lies in his ability to deal with the anguish of ordinary people leading ordinary lives gone awry. These non-heroes or anti-heroes attempt to make sense of their condition and retain their dignity despite the constant restraints of circumstance and their individual shortcomings. But the author provides no answers, makes no judgments. On the contrary, he operates much like the surgeon who, upon exposing a diseased organ–a beating heart, for example– walks away, leaving us to contemplate his handiwork.

In a hallucinatory encounter between Odie and Jim Jones in the opening story, the latter, upon being asked to explain what went wrong, responds: “Words fail.” And Odie asks, “That’s it? Words fail?”

Similarly, when the narrator in “Prodigal Father” tells us he drove toward town and away from his mistake, “but it seemed any moment, I would ease onto the shoulder, turn around, undo what had been done,” we know his words will fail. They will not change the course his life has taken. He is sincere, but not honest. Given his previous behavior we no longer have reason to believe him. In the end, the writer suggests, only actions count.

At the same time, one can’t help wondering whether Blackwood is cautioning us about the inability of words to communicate on all levels–in these stories, in literature, and in human relationships. “Don’t expect too much,” he seems to be saying. “Words are not enough.” However, if that is true, his message is negated, on one level at least, by the sheer power of his own words.

“Riverfest,” a haunting tale of a family whose lives disintegrate following the loss of a job, ends with these words: “He saw himself paddling a canoe between unfamiliar banks, unable to turn against the current.” In “New Years,” the single mother of a rebellious son mans a hot line for others in distress. (Irony such as this is one of Blackwood’s strengths.) When her former husband suffers an aneurysm she spends New Year’s Eve in a hospital emergency room comforting his lover and mulls over the direction her own life has taken: “She wondered if the end of their marriage, its arbitrary breaking apart, was hidden like the aneurysm in the ordinary folds of the past–a forgotten telephone message, a change in someone’s tone of voice, the silences in their lovemaking.” Blackwood grasps the nature of the human condition and holds it captive within the confines of a few simple words.

In addition, his depth and his ability to create highly complex and totally believable characters, situations, and settings, despite the restrictions of space is nothing short of amazing. (His longest story runs 25 pages.) He may consider himself a short story writer–His next work is a novel in stories, dealing with Odie Dodd and his neighbors–but I have no doubt that close to the surface lurks a novelist itching to get out. Thus, in attempting to compare him to other contemporary writers I find myself thinking of William Styron (Lie Down in Darkness, for example), John Updike, and Saul Bellow, all novelists.

With the three overlapping stories that conclude this collection– “Worry,” “Prodigal Fathers” and “One Flesh, One Blood”–Blackwood comes close to producing a novel. Members of the Greer family–the eldest son, his father, and his mother, respectively–are overwhelmed by catastrophe and flounder to stay afloat. These three stories, a smashing trio, are a worthy conclusion to a first-rate collection. (The title piece, though skillfully rendered and highly complex, was not among my favorites.)

Near the end of the last story, when Kay reflects on the nature of human relationships, she writes: “Sincerity is here, then gone, but honesty you have to struggle with.” Much the same can be said for In the Shadow of Our House: One of a writer’s greatest challenges lies in recreating a reality the reader can truly believe in. Blackwood is as honest as they come.

Diana Anhalt is a poet and writer in Mexico City. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Books).