American Morons by Glen Hirschberg
The pleasure in a ghost story is in the ending, and in the story’s ability to linger, like ghosts themselves, in the unlit rooms of the mind. By these two measures, Glen Hirshberg’s American Morons is a collection of great ghost stories, though not all of them contain elements of the supernatural. Either way, the author’s strength is in his ability not to shock or even scare, but to create characters who are genuinely haunted and whose stories have an afterlife in their reader’s consciousness.
The style of these seven stories, despite often elegant, even lyrically descriptive prose, borders on the minimalistic. In the title story, two Americans traveling in Italy, find themselves broken down after fueling their car with the wrong gasoline. The subsequent action involves some uncomfortable assistance from a pair of Italians referred to only as “troll” and “reedy boy,” though it is the former relationship of the Americans, hardly mentioned throughout, that resonates in the end. The structure of most of the stories follows this same pattern: present action sprinkled with allusions to a past event, often the death or illness of a parent. For the most part, the elision of detail and full-fledged flashback heighten the claustrophobic effect, as in “Transitway.” Other times, as in “Like a Lily in a Flood” and “Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air,” one wishes for more reasons to sympathize with the characters before the arrival of the endings, which are consistently stellar.
Hirshberg is a master mood-setter, and his premises are largely original. The time spent in one place, however, in stories often longer than twenty-five pages occasionally crosses the line from languorous to plodding.
One of the gems of the collection is the beautiful if overlong “Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air.” A husband, his wife, and their old friend visit a Long Beach amusement park which may or may not exist, an inventive backdrop for the story’s subtext concerning adult friendships and how we are defined by our past. But like the wife in the story, in search of her own father’s ghost, the reader is not sure what’s there and what isn’t. On the other hand, if you stick around for the ending of each story, you might find yourself thinking, as I often did, who cares?
It is the ending, in fact, where Hirshberg excels and nearly justifies every word of every tale. I would be remiss to give too much away, but the satisfaction usually has more to do with thought than plot. Even in “Transitway,” when the climax is the death of a character, Hirshberg transcends the event itself with a gorgeous description that evokes all the emotion in the survivor left behind:
The most astonishing part, in the end, was the absence of blood. Each shining sliver of Q seemed to shoot straight up, like a spark ejected from a fire, and for that one moment, all the things he was and knew seemed to hover in the air, all jumbled up, a kaleidoscope of bone and books and beer and muscle and love of kids and quiet, seething desperation. And then it vanished. Every speck.
American Morons isn’t without a quirky sense of humor. Usually the humor is subordinate to a more ominous brooding. Wisely, Hirshberg’s characters and situations are never funny enough to pierce the tension, which is an increasingly undervalued element in what’s now being called, for the month anyway, speculative fiction. Most surprising is the sense of unity in this collection that mingles the normal with the paranormal. Ghosts or none, all seven of these stories are haunted by the same belief in something that’s not always there.
American Morons by Glen Hirshberg