“I realized later I’d pictured Yolanda as a wise and sexy angel of mercy, when all the time she was the daughter of a divorced dental technician from Pomona.”
– Four American Tales, ‘Ballbusters on Parade’ (Locations 405-406)
From Amazon: Secrets. Money. Love. Death. Sometimes they’re hard to tell apart.
Four American Tales describes a world of hopes and fears on the far side of the American Dream, in a quartet of evocative stories about love and loss, struggle and ambition from the 1950s to the present day.
‘Wichega’ is an atmospheric tale of childhood’s dreams and nightmares: when Sweet Pea and her family move far away, is it really because her father has quit the Navy, or is there something else going on – something to do with his new Oldsmobile and the monster that lives in the pond out by the highway?
‘A Hundred Ways to Live’ follows Nadine and Earle outside the Law as they travel across the desert in search of the stolen money they hope will give them a new life.
‘Ballbusters on Parade’ is an unconventional parable of work in the sex industry: Mike is persuaded by his girlfriend Yolanda to apply for a screen test. Success, however, leads him in unexpected directions.
‘Uncle Mort’ tells how a bequest gives rise to unforeseen problems. Helen and Thomas are successful and happy New Yorkers. News of her uncle’s death opens up the past and suddenly everything becomes uncertain – marriage, identity and what to do with a tumbledown house that no one wants.
Each story is unique, and the styles different. Through the writing, I got the sense that the author enjoys writing about the post-Great Depression era more than other time periods. No doubt it was an interesting time, but as a result of this preference, Wichega had a very authentic feel. The story was comfortable, the language vivid and the imagery visceral.
Wichega and Ballbusters on Parade were both first person narratives but that is where the similarities end. A Hundred Ways to Live and Uncle Mort were both third person narratives. Again, their stories, characters, content and styles are completely different. If I am honest, I think that Mr Messenger is more adept at writing first person narratives, and this comes through in the writing as the narratives flow a little more easily for Wichega and Ballbusters on Parade.
“Those were the good times, when the long hot days waved to me like a bunch of new friends. I’d grab a hold of their hands and be off seeing what was to be seen all about, just roaming and watching for hours ’til I was too hungry to spit and trailed home. Seemed like that summer the air was full up with heat and bugs and things blown about.” – Wichega (Locations 68-70)
“Nadine, happy, reached for his hand over her shoulder. ‘We can do it, Earle. Once we get the money we can do all the living we want.’” – A Hundred Ways to Live (Locations 215-216)
“First impressions always count, I used to believe, and my ideas about myself were pretty fixed. I was from an average home and an ordinary family, my grades were disappointing going on poor, and my looks were only so-so. Mr Mediocrity was who I saw each day in the mirror, and nobody else had questioned my eyesight.” – Ballbusters on Parade (Locations 292-294)
“Helen stood up, her chair scraping the linoleum. She grasped the dishes with careless haste, cutlery sliding past her fingers. ‘I don’t belong in all this mess.’ She went to the sink and clattered her burden into the basin. ‘I’m a stranger in my own life.’” – Uncle Mort (Locations 484-486)
Though clearly an experienced writer, the author sometimes used outdated words for the scenarios in the stories. The most frequently spotted was the word “automobile”. I would expect the use of “automobile” in stories that are set in the ’30s, ’40s, and even ’50s but not so much in the modern era. This isn’t a criticism so much as an observation. Certain words stood out more than they should have because they simply didn’t belong. This might be the result of the author having a soft spot for period writing, his age or simply preference.
The Amazon blurb starts with four words: Secrets. Money. Love. Death. Within these stories, they are all one in the same. And true to the blurb, once I finished the anthology, I found it difficult to tell them apart. Or rather, to decide what the primary theme was for each story, and if that main theme differed from story to story. Each one of these themes/feelings/emotions is so intricately woven into each of the stories that together they form one large narrative, simply spread over different times and places and enacted by different characters.
Wichega ultimately sees the love of a little girl for her father rendering her incapable of comprehending the truths about him, including his death. A Hundred Ways to Live broaches ideas of starting anew, fresh and stripped clean of the past, and one’s past transgressions, whether they be personal or legal. This is intertwined with loss and death of a loved one but also money and greed. Ballbusters on Parade initially seems to be about money and ego but is really about love, love lost, and love never gained. The story also abstractly revolves around death but as loss. Loss of one’s identity, life, hope, dreams and aspirations. And finally, Uncle Mort rounds off the anthology with a strong link to all of the above. It’s shrouded in secrets that the reader can easily untangle and understand but that the protagonist is slow to realise. It is about love, and different types of love; intimate, familial and even self-love. The story is anchored by death. Not only uncle Mort’s but the existential dread that comes with facing ones own mortality.
Overall, I enjoyed these short stories. Some more than others, with Ballbusters on Parade being my favourite. This particular story had an oddly poetic art imitating life, imitating art, imitating life dynamic to it that really struck a cord with me. Similarly, I felt nothing for A Hundred Ways to Live and struggled it get into the story or feel anything for the characters. Regardless of my personal preference, I would definitely recommend that drama readers give this collection a try.
My rating: 4/5
Buy Four American Tales from Amazon.
This review was requested by the author.