January 2013

Torea Frey


Swim for the Little One First by Noy Holland

In "Luckies Like Us," one of the twelve stories in Swim for the Little One First, Noy Holland invokes "the arithmetic of delay." A mother, waiting with her husband at their young son's sickbed, insists to herself that the father prepare to be grateful (for what he is to be grateful -- a recovery, a painless death, something else entirely -- is left tantalizingly undefined). It is a calculus that may not pay off. How patient can a man be when his child's life hangs in the balance?

Many of Holland's stories ask the reader to make the same bet: to willingly place themselves in her hands, unsure of what's to come, and wait to see how things work out. But the groundwork she lays, beautiful sentences and oddball characters revealed slowly but thoughtfully, are worth the time invested. Sometimes reading is an act of faith. I gave myself up to these pieces -- confused, perhaps, by byzantine descriptions of family structure, or by the ambiguities of language -- and found much to marvel at by the end.

Holland's work may not be for everyone: you probably need to be inclined toward a certain melancholy at the little cruelties of the worlds you swim through while not letting that sadness pull you under; carrying on, even if your shoulders are slumped and you're fighting back tears, is a gesture of optimism in that light. That said, in Holland's third collection of stories, following The Spectacle of the Body and What Begins with Bird, there's enough variation in style (alternately poetic, terse, allusive) and setting (a beachfront Florida retirement community, a Sierra Nevada town in the midst of a mudslide) for most to find something to hold onto. Even in the first few dizzying pages as you try and find your feet, what's best is to simply surrender, reveling in the way her words lie together, and trust that you are in good hands.

In the opening story, "Pachysandra," my initial disorientation gave way to delight; the narrator is helping to care for an older woman, Rose, who seems to be quite literally falling apart -- she breaks her finger dialing the phone, her elbow stirring oatmeal. Her physical fragility is paired with a world-weary combativeness; but for her dogs and her neighbors, she is alone, and it's not hard to see why. Rose's childlessness is in contrast to the urge toward reproduction that the narrator feels; she seems ambivalent about motherhood (a theme that echoes throughout many of the stories), but nonetheless, she says, "I picked life, was my way of thinking, despite the blah blah blah." Even as Rose's existence shrinks almost to nothing -- the way of most things in the world -- the narrator remains stoic but flirts with optimism; we leave the two women laying in shrubbery, eating Lorna Doones, a profound loneliness in the prose scented with a suggestion that none of us is ever so isolated as we might feel.  

"Love's Thousand Bees," one of the strongest pieces, is both a showcase for the technical possibilities of language and an understated evocation of innocence, of human kindness. A young boy, new in town, lumbers in "as a bear-child might"; the prose is powered by an animal intensity that is both dazzling and somewhat disorienting, leaving me grasping, nearly as blind as the child himself, to summon the images as Holland must see them. He has a speech impediment and switches his l's and y's ("'Yook,' he said, 'I yost a tooth'"). He meets a girl named Daisy and, enraptured, offers her a dead chick from his pocket. He could easily become an object of ridicule; the gestures of tenderness could veer toward mawkishness. But the delicacy and sensitivity of the portrayal, the storytelling reserve paired with telling details -- the boy offering a brown milktooth to Daisy to curry her favor -- strike a good balance, the excitement of love's first blush and the prickle at your neck of fear at what surrendering to this feeling might mean.

"Two Dot" also summons memorable characters from a lost little town in Montana, where a woman spends the days before a bull ride slinging beer. The regulars, "old skinnies," come in, "little birds, to sing." They're described with affection and the faintest touch of revulsion; the bartender recognizes herself becoming one of them, "the poor twits... Nobody looked at them: they'd disappeared. I'd be disappearing, too." Luck, then, is life's little graces: fourteen packets of ramen in the cupboard, a skylight in the apartment, being able to stand up and pick glass from your neck after getting in a bike accident. In less deft hands -- with an approach less measured, the narrator's sentiment less raw -- the moral might veer toward the maudlin. But sentimentality has little place in these pages: there is sadness, we find the good to hold on to (even if it's not all that good at all), and we move on.

Holland's sharp eye for detail and her keen sense of what to reveal and what to obscure unite an otherwise diverse collection. Expect to be somewhat disoriented at times -- but also trust that there is often a calculation of discombobulation at play; glory first in the language and watch as the pieces of each story slowly fall into place.

Swim for the Little One First by Noy Holland
Fiction Collective 2
ISBN: 978-1573661690
184 pages