February 2010

James Tate Hill

fiction

Drowned Boy by Jerry Gabriel

The Drowned Boy of Jerry Gabriel’s debut collection is Stevie Lowe, the anonymous teenager from the title story, although it is also a metaphor for lost youth and unfulfilled promise. Many characters, like Nate Holland, leave notions like promise and potential to other people. 

Three quarters of the pieces involve Nate and his brother Donnie, whose encounter with an escapee from a juvenile detention center opens the collection. They give him food, and when Donnie returns to the woods with more provisions, he goes missing for two days. Donnie, we learn, has helped the boy find the interstate. Impressively, the tension comes not from Donnie’s disappearance, but his return, which reveals a part of Nate’s brother he doesn’t understand, a chasm that bears fruit in later stories. 

Set in small-town Kentucky and Ohio, Gabriel’s stories are quiet, but rarely dull. The prose is spare, but hardly minimalistic. Carver comes to mind, but Gabriel’s characters, with the exception of a teacher in “Slump,” aren’t so much jaded as on their way there. Equally apt would be a comparison to Holly Goddard Jones, whose debut collection Girl Trouble came out last fall. Her Kentucky is very much that of Drowned Boy, if a little darker than the world of these stories. 

And one wishes, less while reading than after finishing the collection, that Gabriel pushed his characters into darker corners, pushed them to the end of their rope, as Stanley Elkin liked to say. The title story, for example, more of a novella at fifty-plus pages, focuses on a pair of characters who contemplate the death of an ostensible stranger, but nothing much happens to them. Samantha remembers Stevie Lowe as the boy who had sat behind her in class, who, “if [he] had lived a full life -- if he’d grown to be one of those feed-capped, bib-overalled farmers from Tripoli -- his death scarcely would have registered in the town and county.” Yet she becomes obsessed with him in the believable, sincere way teenagers do, attempting to make sense of her own life as much as Stevie Lowe’s. A good student, Samantha skips school and finds herself stealing a soda and Slim Jims, a transgression that suggests bigger changes are on the way. 

Giving chase is the stock boy, Nate Holland, now in his early twenties. Nate’s brother Donnie once dated the older sister of Stevie Lowe. Samantha is an acquaintance of Nate’s, and it’s during his half-hearted pursuit that he ponders the fact that he’d rather be outside than working his dead-end job. Over the phone, we learn that Donnie has joined the Army and gotten married, but we learn more from what isn’t said. The distance between them is emotional as well as geographical, and as we see a fuller picture of Nate as an adult, one wonders if passive Nate is the more disconnected of the two. 

The story alternates chapters between Samantha and Nate, who come face to face at Stevie’s funeral, but don’t know what to say to one another. On the way home, after a nonstarter of a scene at a convenience store, Samantha climbs a barbed-wire fence to quench her thirst with water from a shallow, frozen creek. On his way home, Nate stops to help at the scene of an accident. The plot is frustrating, but the chapters build well upon one another, raising expectations before the abrupt ending. As quiet as these linked stories are, their resonance is cumulative rather than sudden. Still, the chapters of this anchor story confound more than satisfy. Gabriel’s characters are the blue-collar variety who, when they have epiphanies, cannot or do not articulate them, but in “Drowned Boy,” the reader is the one puzzling over what to take away. 

Four other stories feature Nate and Donnie, two in which the characters are children, and two in which they're adults. In “Falling Water” and “The Marauders,” Nate observes two instances when his father, a generally passive man, asserts himself at family get-togethers. In the former, Mr. Holland accepts the target practice challenge of his wife’s relatives, and in the latter he challenges Nate and Donnie’s ornery uncle not to beat his son. These stories, like the collection as a whole, are full of wonderfully observed moments, of gestures that communicate more than dialogue ever could. It’s when we see the brothers as adults, in the final two stories, when we wish the quietude were better alternated with the tornadoes and house fires that eventually come. 

In “Weather,” after a disagreement with his girlfriend, Donnie gets into a shouting match with her father. “Just for the record, I never liked you,” says the father. “I never liked you either,” says Donnie. The father asks for his banana and bagel back, and Donnie throws them on the dewy lawn before climbing into his rusted out Chevelle. Later, Donnie returns to the house for his father’s watch, which lies smashed beside a note written in pastel chalk on the sidewalk: “We’re not quite even, but I feel a little better.” Making it to the humor in this story, the next to last in the collection, the reader feels as Nate must have felt when Donnie came home from the Army to regale him with stories of adventure and conquest -- and for the tone, as much as the action, the collection would have benefitted from more stories told from Donnie’s point of view. 

Nate, too, as an adult looking for his brother in “Reagan’s Army in Retreat,” has grown into a capable protagonist, no longer wistful, but taking charge of his desires. Ill-informed, he is tenting out in the backyard of the house where his brother no longer lives. Never mind that, because the story begins when Donnie’s neighbor cuts a hole in Nate’s tent with a hunting knife. The neighbor invites him over. Their chimney catches on fire. Things happen when you step outside your comfort zone. Perhaps, too, the last two stories resonate most because, when we get there, we have already spent time with the brothers. The Nate and Donnie pieces appear chronologically, and if there are slower moments in the earlier stories, they do echo beautifully, not unlike our own memories, when we see who the boys have become. 

Drowned Boy by Jerry Gabriel
Sarabande Books
ISBN: 1932511784
176 Pages