Sidle Creek by Jolene McIlwain (Blog Tour)
I’m a sucker for “dirty realism,” a term coined in the 1980s to encompass gritty stories of blue-collar Americana: Ron Rash, David Vann, Daniel Woodrell et al. (I wrote a whole article about it in 2013). It’s less common, certainly, to find women writing in this subgenre, and that feminine touch is part of what makes Sidle Creek unique. In this debut collection of 22 short stories, loosely linked by their location in the Appalachian hills in western Pennsylvania and a couple of recurring minor characters, Jolene McIlwain softens the harsh realities of addiction, poverty and violence with the tender bruises of infertility and lost love.
The title story, which opens the book, has a shifting first-person point-of-view, first telling us about and then putting us into the mind of Esme Andersen, who’s 20 in 1975. Various diagnoses have plagued her family, medical words that repeat as chants: hemorrhage, endometriosis. Superstitions around the creek cast it alternately as a potential site of harm or healing as her single father tries to help her deal with her severe periods. The cover image comes from “Shell,” in which Tiller Shanty reads signs in the markings on red-winged blackbird eggs. He learned his skill of divination from his Vietnamese wife, but conceals from her a portent about her future. It turns out there’s more than one way to lose a beloved.
Grief is a resonant theme in so many of the stories. “The Fractal Geometry of Grief” is a shining example. Hubert Ashe, a widowed mathematician, becomes obsessed with a doe and sets up trail cams and a feeding station to watch her. It’s not clear whether he believes the animal is a reincarnation of his wife or not, but it’s unwise to get so attached in a hunting area. In “Seeds,” a man finds a photograph of his dying wife as a girl and revisits the sadness of her life. “Steer,” one of the most affecting stories, has a middle-aged man hit by anxiety, unable to forget the death of one of their cattle back when he was 16. As horrific as the experience was, it made him receptive to both beauty and pain.
Animal suffering is indeed frequent – something that seems important to mention, as I know a lot of readers who avoid scenes of it whenever possible. In “Eminent Domain,” the electricity shed where teenagers used to go drinking is found to be full of slaughtered cats. It’s the prompt the protagonist needs to escape this dead-end town. “Loosed” is a masterpiece in the vein of Demon Copperhead (though much more violent) about a man who makes money on increasingly cruel sport: cock fighting, then dog fighting, then dirty fights between his own four sons. The flash forward that ends this one is devastating. I, too, am sensitive to reading about animal deaths, but the animal suffering only matches the human here. The nastiness of “The Less Said” makes that plain.
Pregnancy or infant loss is a recurring element. In just three pages, “Seed to Full” expresses a world of sorrow as a woodworker crafts a coffin for his infant son. Even where it is not a central subject, infertility is mentioned in a number of stories. In “You Four Are the One,” four adolescent neighbor girls help Cinta Johns out around the house, hoping with her that this fifth pregnancy will be the one that lasts. “The Steep Side,” a memorable closer that shifts between past and future, has a teen coming across a crashed van, a heavily pregnant woman, and an older woman claiming to be a nurse. What he sees haunts him into adulthood.
There’s an air of mystery to that one, and particularly in “Those Red Boots,” about the disappearance of a waitress who worked at a Hooters-style joint where all the comely staff wear the same uniforms and perform titillating dances. My preference was for longer stories like this where you get greater depth of characterization and more scenes and dialogue. I might have considered cutting a handful of the flash-length stories. However, even in these micro-fictions, there are still interesting setups. My favorite among them was “The Fourth,” in which Independence Day fireworks are triggering for shell-shocked Uncle Ron.
At times harrowing, always clear-eyed, these stories are true to life and compassionate about human foibles and animal pain. I would highly recommend them to readers of Kent Haruf and Jayne Anne Phillips. McIlwain has such an established voice that this hardly seems like a first book. I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next.
With thanks to Melville House for the proof copy for review.
Buy Sidle Creek from Bookshop.org [affiliate link]
I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour for Sidle Creek. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King
(This was meant to be one entry in a roundup of mini-reviews, but I found that I had far too much to say about it. On Sunday I’ll feature three more May releases I’ve read.)
1997. Following a breakup and her mother’s sudden death, Casey Peabody is drowning in grief and debt. At 31, she lives in a tiny studio apartment off of her brother’s friend’s house and cycles everywhere. Between shifts waitressing at Iris, a trendy restaurant above a Harvard social club, she chips away at the Cuba-set novel she’s been writing for six years.
Through her writer friend Muriel she meets two love interests at a book launch for Oscar Kolton, a former Boston University professor and novelist who’s been leading a fiction workshop since his wife’s death a few years ago. One is the fortysomething Oscar himself; the other, who initially seems more promising, is Silas, a would-be writer from the workshop. But before they have a chance to see if this will go somewhere, Silas is off. He leaves Casey a voicemail saying he needs to get away for a while. Oh well; just another flake, she thinks.
After he and his adorable young sons come in to the restaurant for brunch one day, her interest is squarely in Oscar. Or, that is, until Silas comes back and she finds herself dating two men at the same time. A museum trip with Silas here, a dinner out with Oscar there. As if her love life isn’t complication enough, before long she finds herself looking for a new job, a place to live, a literary agent, and reassurance that she’ll be okay when she takes advantage of her short-lived health insurance to get some minor medical issues checked out.
I almost passed on reading this one because I’d gotten it in my head that it was nothing more than a romantic comedy with a love triangle. I’m so glad that Kate’s review convinced me to give it a try after all. On the face of it this could hardly be more different from King’s previous novel, Euphoria, about anthropologists doing field work in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, but King’s attention to the intricacies of human relationships links the two. When I read Euphoria in late 2014, I noted the natives’ practice of cutting off a finger for every close relative lost. Here you also get the sense that everyone has lost someone, and that these losses are as visible as physical traits. Casey is only on her second conversation with Silas when she thinks, “I can tell he lost someone close somehow. You can feel that in people, an openness, or maybe it’s an opening that you’re talking into. With other people, people who haven’t been through something like that, you feel the solid wall. Your words go scattershot off of it.”
There are so many things to love about this novel, including the wonderful/terrible scenes where she rattles off her mother’s story to two doctors and her awful father and stepmother show up for lunch. Count the rest: The Boston-area setting, the restaurant bustle, that feeling we’ve all had of wasting our talents while stuck in the wrong job and the wrong living situation. Casey’s confiding first-person, present-tense narration, the little observations on writers (when John Updike comes into the restaurant she touches his loafer for luck; she nearly swoons when Jayne Anne Phillips is at one of her tables—“Black Tickets is like a prayer book to me”; she thinks she’s blown a high school English teacher interview when she states a dislike for Cormac McCarthy—“he seemed to be alternating between imitating Hemingway and imitating Faulkner”), and even the choice between Silas and Oscar (“Fireworks or coffee in bed”). She doesn’t make the ‘right’ choice I was expecting, but if you’ve been following the clues closely you’ll realize it’s the only one she could have made.
What I loved most, though, was that we see this character at rock bottom but also when things start to go well at long last. “There’s a particular feeling in your body when something goes right after a long time of things going wrong. It feels warm and sweet and loose.” I felt I knew Casey through and through, and I cheered for her as I did for Ana in Dominicana by Angie Cruz. Those who have tried writing a book will probably get even more out of this than I did, but it will resonate for anyone who’s ever felt lost and uncertain about life’s direction. “Isn’t our whole life just one long improvisation?” Casey hears at a writing festival.
Think of this as an older, sadder Sweetbitter, perhaps as written by Elizabeth Strout. It gives you all the feels, as they say.
A real standout and one of my few early favorites from 2020.
With thanks to Picador for the unsolicited copy for review.
The Shortest of the Short: Four Novellas of under 50 Pages
It’s a tradition now in its third and last year: I spend one day at the New Networks for Nature conference with my husband, and then (to save money, and because I’ve usually had my fill of stimulating speakers by then) wander around Stamford and haunt the public library on the other day.
This past Saturday I browsed the charity shops and found a short story collection I’ve been interested in reading, but otherwise just spent hours in Stamford’s library looking through recent issues of the Times Literary Supplement and The Bookseller and reading from the stack of novellas I’d brought with me. I read four in one sitting because all were shorter than 50 pages long: two obscure classics and two nature books.
The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono (1953)
[Translated from the French by Barbara Bray; 46 pages]
Trees have been a surprise recurring theme in my 2018 reading. This spare allegory from a Provençal author is all about the difference one person can make. The narrator meets a shepherd and beekeeper named Elzéard Bouffier who plants as many acorns as he can; “it struck him that this part of the country was dying for lack of trees, and having nothing much else to do he decided to put things right.” Decades pass and two world wars do their worst, but very little changes in the countryside. Old Bouffier has led an unassuming but worthwhile life.
There’s not very much to this story, though I appreciated the message about doing good even if you won’t get any recognition or even live to see the fruits of your labor. What’s most interesting about it is the publication history: it was commissioned by Reader’s Digest for a series on “The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met,” and though the magazine accepted it with rapture, there was belated outrage when they realized it was fiction. It was later included in a German anthology of biography, too! No one recognized it as a fable; this became a sort of literary in-joke, as Giono’s daughter Aline reveals in a short afterword.
Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville (1853)
[40 pages from my Penguin Classics copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories]
You probably know the basic plot even if you’ve never read the story. Hired as the fourth scrivener in a Wall Street office of law-copyists, Bartleby seems quietly efficient until one day he mildly refuses to do the work requested of him. “I prefer not to” becomes his refrain. First he stops proofreading his copies, and then he declines to do any writing at all. (More and more these days, I find I have the same can’t-be-bothered attitude as Bartleby!) As the employer/narrator writes, “a certain unconscious air … of pallid haughtiness … positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities.” Farce ensues as he finds himself incapable of getting rid of Bartleby, even after he goes to the extreme of changing the premises of his office. Three times he even denies knowing Bartleby, but still the man is a thorn in his flesh, a nuisance turned inescapable responsibility. A glance at the introduction by Harold Beaver tells me I’m not the first to make such Christian parallels. (This was the first Melville I’ve read since an aborted attempt on Moby-Dick during college.)
The Company of Swans by Jim Crumley (1997)
[Illustrated by Harry Brockway, who also did the wood engravings for the Giono; 39 pages]
Crumley is an underappreciated Scottish nature writer. Here he tells the tale of a pair of mute swans on a loch in Highland Perthshire. He followed their relationship with great interest over a matter of years. First he noticed that their nest had been robbed, twice within a few weeks, and realized otters must be to blame. Then, although it’s a truism that swans mate for life, he observed the cob (male) leaving the pen (female) for another! Crumley was overtaken with sympathy for the abandoned swan and got to feed her by hand and watch her fall asleep. “To suggest there was true communication between us would be outrageous, but I believe she regarded me as benevolent, which was all I ever asked of her,” he writes. Two years later he learns the end of her story. A pleasant ode to fleeting moments of communion with nature.
“Swans this wild let you into only a certain portion of their lives. They give you intimate glimpses. But you can never have any part in the business of being a swan. You can offer them no more than the flung tribute of your admiring gaze.”
“I think there is nothing in all nature that outshines that lustrous lacing of curves [of swan necks], nothing in all theatre that outperforms its pivotal tension.”
Holloway by Robert Macfarlane (2013)
[Illustrated by Stanley Donwood; 39 pages]
In 2011 Macfarlane set out to recreate a journey through South Dorset that he’d first undertaken with the late Roger Deakin in 2005, targeting the sunken paths of former roadways. This is not your average nature or travel book, though; it’s much more fragmentary and poetic than you’d expect from a straightforward account of a journey through the natural world. I thought the stream-of-consciousness style overdone, and got more out of the song about the book by singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson. (Her Book Songs, Volume 1 EP, which has been one of my great discoveries of the year, is available to listen to and purchase on her Bandcamp page. It also includes songs inspired by Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Sarah Hall’s Haweswater, and Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann.) The black-and-white illustrations are nicely evocative, though.
Lines I liked:
“paths run through people as surely as they run through places.”
“The holloway is absence; a wood-way worn away by buried feet.”