May 2012

Kate Angus

fiction

The World of a Few Minutes Ago by Jack Driscoll

The title (and title story) of Jack Driscoll's The World of a Few Minutes Ago is, as a phrase, eloquent shorthand for the longing that suffuses this book. For Driscoll's characters, nostalgia serves as threnody, a dark river running under these stories, although what is lamented and longed for is not so much always the dead (although they are present here too) as it is the idea of a different life, one where one's luck doesn't run out, where neither children nor parents are taken from us and where lovers don't disappear. The collection opens with a poem by Raymond Carver that seems to crystallize the yearning of so many of the men and women who range through the harsh winter landscape of Driscoll's stories: "And did you get what / You wanted from this life, even so?"                       

Like Carver, Driscoll is both storyteller and poet, having previously authored four collections of poetry as well as four novels and a previous short story collection. And, as like Carver before him, these stories focus not so much on the big moment or on exceptional people, but rather on the luminous pain of the ordinary, the attrition of everyday life where the tabulation of all our losses and daily disappointments, both small and great, grind down to the bone and can break us.

Unlike the pared down minimalism of Carver's stories, however, Driscoll's language is lush and luminous. The pain in these stories sings and, without sentimentality or the false promise of too easy answers, he offers his readers a kind of consolation in the way grief can transcend itself and transform into moments of harsh beauty. Consider, for example, the following lines from "After Everyone Else Has Left," which detail the thoughts of Doyle, a junior high school geography teacher, about his ex-wife as he waits alone to watch the execution of the man who may have killed his young daughter thirteen years before: "He has not laid eyes on her in over a decade, her exact whereabouts unknown to him. No letters or phone calls, though sometimes in the deep, uncharted silence of her absence, he believes he can hear the papery mouths of those Maine wasps in the eaves, chewing and chewing, their gray nests protected from the sun and the rain."

Doyle's loss, as Driscoll describes it, is utter and stark, but the eeriness of the image of the wasps that speak inside his former wife's absence allows the story to open into a place where the smallest moments of his harrowing isolation haunts us as much as, if not more, than the more traditionally dramatic narrative of a father as he waits to watch his daughter's killer die.

Seven out of the ten stories here are first person narratives, and those seven are the most gripping in the collection. In part, this is because the narrative trajectory of these stories frequently follow the wandering discursive loops of a late night confession we might hear whispered by close friends or desperate strangers, but in part it's also because his characters are so recognizable and engaging -- they come to us fully-fleshed and all too aware already of their own flaws -- that their voices become welcome companions. These are stories about second and third chances and first chances that never worked out -- the type of story best suited to the first person, that we might encounter in our own lives as we sit at scarred bar tables in harsh climes and told to us by the people we sip drinks with as they mull over all the other lives they could have lived if just one thing had gone differently.

There are happy people here too, like the couples in "Prowlers" and in the title story, whose differently-troubled but still radiant love open and close the collection, the love and wisdom in these stories is hard won and, therefore, honest. Here is the son in "Travel Advisory" who watches his father's famous luck run out as the prize wild boar he has gone to Hawaii to hunt is lost by the airline and, when recovered, is recovered but not salvageable. The son's harsh acceptance of the limits of human endeavor and the necessity of endurance seems directly addressed to all of us as he thinks to himself, "so welcome to those of us who hunkered down and somehow survived the season, unable to get away." Here too is Alden, the narrator of "Wonder," just out of prison and trying to make a new start as he returns to his hometown and encounters, among the shambles of his best friend's marriage and aging parents, the girl who could have maybe prevented his long years of wandering when he first stormed out of a community college class, years ago. Although Driscoll doesn't offer us the sham of a guaranteed happy ending, he does offer us grace, the hard-earned miracle of the everyday where we might find ourselves "if not anointed, then content... And yes, perhaps even grateful for whatever next thing might begin." What Driscoll gives his characters, and us by extension, is hope.

The World of a Few Minutes Ago by Jack Driscoll
Wayne State University Press
ISBN-13: 978-0814336120
173 pages