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Friday, November 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Stark, vivid portraits emerge from short-story collection

Seattle Times book editor

Author appearance


John Keeble will read from "Nocturnal America" at 7 p.m. Tuesday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com). Keeble will appear with his fellow Prairie Schooner Award winner, poet Kathleen Flenniken ("Famous").

Eastern Washington author John Keeble was publishing short stories before his breakout novel, 1980's "Yellowfish." He has stuck with the form, despite distinguished forays into novels and nonfiction, ever since. His new collection, "Nocturnal America," (University of Nebraska Press, 267 pp., $26.95), showcases the sweep of his career, from 1976 to 2004.

"Nocturnal America," winner of the 2006 Prairie Schooner Prize for fiction, is a supremely satisfying set of nine loosely connected stories that interweave raw emotion, spiritual searching and violence — sometimes the implied physical threat that trembles under the skin of everyday events; sometimes murder.

For the most part, Keeble, a professor emeritus at Eastern Washington University who founded the fine-arts program there, carries it off beautifully. Some of these stories make the heart ache; others are literally breathtaking, as the reader braces for the aftershock of a tragic outcome.

The struggles they depict are both mundane and heroic. In the story "I Could Love You (If I Wanted)," Lola, a single parent, is at war with herself about whether to care for her invalid mother: "Lola did not want to bring her mother to her house, but that night she cleaned it as if it was foreordained. It was doom she felt, made out of the old contradiction: the necessity that she care and her wish not to care."

"The Transmission" is a compact, incredibly tense piece of work, in which the struggle to drop a transmission into a truck explodes a family, unleashing sex, self-loathing and recrimination. The battle with the transmission, which prefigures the upheaval to come, is so vivid it will make the sweat pop out on your brow.

"The Fishers" is an elegy to Louise, a city girl (Tacoma) who moves with her sweetheart to Eastern Washington and builds a life on a farm there. It shows how faint a thumbprint we leave on the places we inhabit, as Louise and her family watch a way of life emerge, bloom and vanish within three or four generations: "She and Ed had watched the number of farms dwindle. The money passed increasingly into the hands of a few educated farmers who ... became adept at buying up more real estate and playing the subsidy programs against their investments. But the old days linger as a memory and exert a force upon the imagination of the people. There is a form of deeply held dreaming that continues, inspired by this memory as if by a relic."

"Zeta's House" has the stillness of a prayer. The narrator visits a friend after his daughter's death, and recalls a previous visit in the family kitchen. As the family shucked corn, the mortally ill 6-year-old girl braced herself against the counter, watching. "One of her brothers ... moved to her and placed his arm gently around her. She put her head against his waist. 'It sounds like it's raining,' she said. Everyone listened. In fact, it was clear outside ... Having her there seemed a gift. It was as if she'd been sent to us to stand watch for a time at the entrance to the other, adjacent world."

"Chickens" is a crystalline recollection of post-World-War-II life in a small Saskatchewan town, perhaps similar to the one Keeble grew up in. The narrator, a minister's young son, grows to understand "that his parents, as pastor and pastor's wife, were positioned at the core of the town ... They were the spiritual sieves and the last wall of defense against the chaos of personal trouble and gossip." The settlement's postwar serenity is rent when a solitary German man moves in, starts a large-scale chicken ranch, and upends the old rhythms of the community.

"Nocturnal America" follows Fay, who has signed up to work as a kitchen assistant on an oil tanker. The giant backdrop of this piece — the tanker, the ocean and Prince William Sound — make the humans moving over it seem particularly vulnerable and defenseless.

The final piece, the novella "Freeing the Apes," involves a man's tortured past as a U.S. government operative. A murder, a fire, a Kennewick Man-like discovery and a trail of mysterious and mystical symbols are left as trailmarkers to unfolding events.

Keeble's people are farmers and mechanics and military men, and occasionally their dialogue is a little too literate for garden-variety human beings. Pondering a couple who jumped from the World Trade Center to their deaths, a woman wonders aloud: "Just imagine the worlds that collapsed around the couple in that two or three minutes as they fell. What were those worlds? What chaos was left to grow among the living, what terrifying stories, and what utter clarity for the dead at the end of their lives?"

Good questions, but they sound more like a speech or a sermon than a person just, well ... talking.

But for the most part, the men and women of "Nocturnal America" are as real as your next-door neighbor, struggling with matters of body and spirit against an Eastern Washington backdrop of stark lines, sweeping curves and treeless horizons. Keeble illuminates his characters with uncommon clarity, showing the care of an author who's spent 30 years perfecting his form.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357

or mgwinn@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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