All Aboard by Joe Ashby Porter
Beyond disregarding literary fashion, Joe Ashby Porter seems to inhabit his own world, producing compelling short fiction exclusively on his own terms. His latest collection contains six valuable and unique studies of connection and detachment as mediated by age, sexuality, and proximity. Though more grounded in the familiar than his previous collection, Touch Wood, an initial strangeness, both of content and style, still threatens to alienate the casual reader. Consideration, however, is rewarded.
One must first cope with Porter’s tendency for distancing the reader from the text. A dominant third-person style serves as the first barrier. Even in the two brief first-person stories, the transparency and ambiguity of the narrator resist familiarity. Further complicating things, acts and events tend to be referred to before they have been introduced, making first readings somewhat bewildering. The most significant and striking distancing technique in Porter’s arsenal, though, is his restless use of language. It sometimes seems as if he has chosen fiction as a repository for rare words and uncommon definitions of common words. Far from being rigid or formal, though, accurate rarities like “matutinal” share the page with modern truncations like “diff.” Words like “amatory” and “philately” used in casual conversation between unscholarly characters further obstruct the reader. All of these techniques -- perspective, withholding of information, and conspicuous language -- serve a style that could be judged playful or jarring with equal facility. Upon consideration, though, one can detect two functions of this initially repellent reading experience. First of all, these stories, through their inaccessibility, invite rereading, and indeed, the prose does become transparent with subsequent readings. Second, Porter’s resistance to easy immersion serves to draw attention to the pervasive theme of distance within the fictions.
Distance manifests most generally in a fondness for travel and locale, a consistent presence in Porter’s fiction; settings range from Florida to Arizona to western Africa. More important to this collection, however, are location and physical orientation and how they draw attention to separateness. Sometimes he accomplishes this formally as in “Solstice” in which two itinerant characters wander simultaneous paths throughout the American west as they find work in local theater circuits. The reader follows the characters in alternating, chronological segments bookended by the eventual intersection of their paths. On a smaller scale, the story “Dream On” is structured as an interrogation taking place amidst a vague beach resort. By setting the scene amidst people having fun by the water, Porter creates a more poignant sense of separation than would have been achieved in a cement room with just the two interrogators. On a psychological level, Porter sometimes gives access to the thoughts of characters in proximity to other characters, drawing attention to the doubt, suspicion, and disingenuousness that make connection between individuals so elusive. The result of all of this focus on simultaneity and separation is a very quiet tone. Though characters do converse, exclaim, laugh, and come into physical contact, these more conventional types of interaction are often superficial, a means of exploring separation.
Another persistent element of connection and disconnection is sexuality, a constant concern and indispensible element of human experience in this collection. Homosexuality, for instance, is a casually accepted reality, one that is recognized and dealt with by many of the characters in these stories. While the accompanying pain and confusion are occasionally acknowledged by Porter, they are not his focus. The presence of sexuality via libido and performance is more important. Lack of the former seems to push one character in “Solstice” towards ambivalence and detachment, while lack of the latter is a constant anxiety for the main character of “Pending.” Sometimes sex is fodder for conversations or encounters. In “Merrymount,” several workers discuss tactics for getting laid. In “Forgotten Coast,” a man uses the discovery of his late wife’s infidelity as an excuse to visit his estranged daughter’s family. While these stories are far from sexy, sex is a constant interest, manifesting in many interesting ways.
Ultimately, these six stories are challenging but rewarding. Despite Porter’s extremely subtle wit, their value does not lie exclusively in the momentary state caused by their being read. Read once, straight through, they prove remarkable but unmemorable. Fortunately, these stories withstand scrutiny and tighten with each reading. This reiterative satisfaction is the mark of a veteran fiction writer. While not for casual readers, this collection will satisfy and engage the serious pursuer of short fiction.
All Aboard by Joe Ashby Porter
Turtle Point Press