July 2006

fiction

Goat Trees: Tales from the Other Side of the World by David Rozgonyi

“Dying is: one hundred eighteen degrees in the shade; a creeping nausea; a lung searing blast through a window flung open onto scalding corrugations of earth high enough to block the view.”

From the first page of the title story, David Rozgonyi casts the line, hooks his readers, and reels them in. We begin the journey there with him, flung onto the shores of new worlds where the romantic, the tragic, and the potential for bliss mingle with hard life lessons some must learn over and over again. A barely disguised but fictional travel log, Rozgonyi’s first collection of short stories contains more than just dates and locations. It is about the power of human contact, of touch, of bonding and acceptance.

Goat Trees is a rare patchwork of many different lives. A traveler on his way to Beijing shares more than just a train compartment with the violent soldiers of the Red Chinese Army. A traveler in Morocco is hounded by “the Lion of Fez.” A circle of strangers in Japan tell stories of their personal regrets, and two of them pine for love in each other without speaking. Through it all, the common theme of searching prevails. Everyone is searching for something, and they all travel through both inner and outer worlds to find it.

Never have knowledge and art been so craftily and evenly distributed in a series of travel stories. The author balances perfectly the art of story with the necessary details that create worlds strange to many of us. Having backpacked across six continents himself, the author is no stranger to travel. His fiction is genuine because he knows what it is like to be “the other,” that strange creature lost in the wilderness, wandering, never quite blending in. In fact, this sense of displacement is expertly highlighted in all of the stories. Rozgonyi uses the skillful technique of character voice to both educate readers, and integrate them into his stories. In “Snails of the South Pacific,” a boy searches for a hidden sandfield in which to hunt snails. He says, repeating his brother’s warnings,

the corals are so sharp they cut your hand to the bone, sharks so plentiful the sky is blocked out when you go down there. The currents kill you quick, suck you over the shelf and into the deep. But, oh, the hunting! The snails get so big you never seen nothing like it. They older than you, little brother. Older than me, some of them.

The author continues this trend in other stories, expertly melding fantasy and reality, research and fiction, all the while bringing the reader into a world so blessedly real that you find yourself wanting to look each character in the eye, shake their hand, kiss each one’s various external hurts and internal wounds.

The most stunning revelation of all is that, in this collection of stories about real life love and loss, every story instinctively trends toward the unreal, the fantasy, the folktale version of telling. In “Lightning,” a group of girls in the Carpathian foothills are “padding barefoot through the castle’s dark corridors, following a tortuous path they knew well.” They are waiting for their father to come home when their sister gets hit by lighting (“for an instant she looked as though frozen in brilliant white ice, a golem floating a handspan above the thick stones”) and, rather than leave her for dead, the sisters attempt to cure her by engaging in an old ritual of burying her in the ground. In “An Autumn Scent,” a dog waits endlessly for her owner to open the door to their deserted cabin. “She put her nose to the seam. No smell came from it. He had gone somewhere else.” Never before has someone leaving, a dog story, sent such shivers down my arms. It is eerily beautiful and lonesome. It is heartbreakingly sad, and yet there is something eerie about the telling of the story, the dark creatures in the bushes we never see, the moment we realize it is not a ghost but a dog moving through the snow-filled open spaces.

Not all of the stories are tragic, however. In “Snails of the South Pacific,” for example, the boy faces grave danger and serious injury, only to succeed at his goals in catching the snail. “It smelled like the sea as the abalone hunter brought the white flesh to his lips, and ate.” In “Traveling on Trains,” a man falls asleep to the sounds of a rough soldier cooing words of love to a woman beside him. Overall, there is a moment in every story when contact is made, a life is changed, hope is rekindled.

Goat Trees is a compelling, action-filled, reflective fairy tale book for grown-ups. Heartbreak and triumph are abundant and experienced vividly. Rozgonyi dives into worlds the average tourist would never get to see, all the while gripping tight to the emotional ghosts the characters never get to keep.

Goat Trees: Tales from the Other Side of the World by David Rozgonyi
Wolverine Farm Publishing
ISBN 0974199966
244 pages