September 2008

Benjamin Jacob Hollars

fiction

The Man Back There and Other Stories by David Crouse

David Crouse’s The Man Back There is a little like looking at yourself looking at yourself in a mirror: his stories leave behind the all-too-familiar trail of heartbreak and disappointment that we can’t help but recognize buried a few layers deep within us. Just beyond the blurry, melancholic reverberations comes the clarity, and his sharp sense for setting and dialogue only further contribute to the wealth of strengths he draws upon.

Winner of the 2007 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, the subtleties of his mundane, realist predicaments are of the Ann Beattie/Raymond Carver variety. His stories begin by stripping the reader of resources, offering only the most basic facts, reserving the most important details for later. This technique of stranding the reader requires a near-constant recalibration of the story, yet to its benefit, it delays the packed punch long enough to drive what, on the surface, seems like quietly conflicted stories.

In the title story, Crouse begins after the conflict has already cooled. A woman and her new boyfriend catch their breath outside a bar minutes after an encounter with the woman’s ex. “After the flash of wild motion” writes Crouse, “after the thrown drink, the tumbling chair as Sweets jumped to his feet and ducked his head, after Sharon’s near-fall as he shoved her toward the exit -- they stood on the sidewalk without speaking.” He manages to subvert the tried-and-true “rising-action-climax-return-to-order structure” and instead, hones in primarily on the return to order.

These are drab, muted stories; stories in which the confrontations often flame out before anyone can manage the last word. And in this regard, Crouse’s work not only comments on the imitative qualities of literature, but also, refuses us a happily-ever-after, which is, perhaps, an even clearer depiction of true-to-life entanglements.

Crouse’s strongest stories involve a plot and subplot that bristle against one another long enough for the friction to catch fire. “The Forgotten Kingdom” is perhaps the best example of this. Denny -- young and uninterested -- mans a video game hint hotline at a dying company, only to find himself continually assisting one avid caller to traverse the many pitfalls of the Ogre Citadel and The Mountains of Malice. This backdrop plays neatly alongside his complicated personal life, eventually heightening to a crescendo of ambivalence and discontentment toward the intersecting worlds of pixilated life and the real one he inhabits.

Strangely, Crouse’s strengths and weaknesses flow from the same stream: his stories are so quiet we can hardly hear them. But if we stay quiet ourselves, keep our ears pressed tight to the pages, we can manage to gather enough words to make sense of all the others.

The Man Back There and Other Stories by David Crouse
Sarabande Books
ISBN: 1932511636
224 Pages