|Edited by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
Curbstone Press, $17.95
Reviewed by Richard Wiley (Korea 196769)
Living On The Edge is a fine collection of stories. John Coyne, its editor, has garnered a reputation over the last dozen years or so as an absolute pit bull of an advocate for this genre, and rightly so. The Peace Corps is not, thank God, in all these stories that is, it does not always serve as the vehicle through which characters arrive overseas but rather stands behind them as the teacher under whose tutelage these seventeen writers garnered their literary sensibility. These are outward looking stories, that’s what I love about them. In one way America is everywhere in them, yet in another it isn’t in them at all. Boundaries are expanded here, Asian cultures are met and misunderstood, African languages find torment on tongues where only English has been housed, and South American politics, whether left or right wing, is conveyed with humor and panache.
It’s interesting to note, however, that once one gets past that “Peace Corps” organizing principle, these writers are as different, one to another, as any other group of writers one might find. Some are primarily interested in story, using language as the fuel that throttles it along, while others put language in the driver’s seat, letting story ride shotgun. Listen to this lovely paragraph, for example, by my old Korea buddy, John Givens (Korea 196769), in his Buddhist-delving treatise, “On The Wheel of Wandering On.”
Candles in handmade paper lanterns were suspended from iron hooks that protruded from the lintel beams, forming pools of light at evenly spaced intervals down the length of the verandah, like portholes on the ship of the temple as it sailed through the silence of the night sea, transporting the immense substantiation of the Buddha on its unending and perfect journey.
Look at the nice juxtaposition of the primarily visual “portholes of the ship of the temple,” with the suddenly conceptual “immense substantiation of the Buddha.” This sentence travels every bit as much as Givens ever did as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and therein lies the magic of it, the beauty.
Or take the fine opening of Bob Shacochis’ famous story, “Easy In The Islands.”
The days were small, pointless epics, long windups to punches that always drifted by cartoon-fashion, as if each simple task were meaningless unless immersed in more theater and threat than bad opera.
Here writing stands up and is counted. “The days were small pointless epics?” it’s language alone that carries us to the Caribbean in this piece, craft, not (necessarily) character or story, that plops us down on the sand though both character and story are in clear evidence later on.
Great tales greatly told
Other good pieces, Paul Theroux’s “White Lines,” for example, or Mark Brazaitis’ very funny “The Heroes of Our Stories,” or the endlessly clever “The Egg Queen Rises” by Mark Jacobs, or Eileen Drew’s terrific “Mad Dogs” ( “Because the dog might have rabies they’re going to shoot it and cut off its head.”) seem to come out of certain memories or oft told tales, Peace Corps or other expatriate myths, that have stayed with these writers (for years?) until they were able to surround them with their subtle and sizable imaginations, transport them to us under the finely fashioned auspices of fiction.
Out of Africa (mostly)
Some of these stories are thinner than others, I suppose, or perhaps less ambitious, but all of them, all seventeen, are the serious works of serious writers. If I have a gripe at all, it is that eleven of the stories are set in Africa. I’ve nothing against Africa, of course been there, love it, set stories there myself but toward the middle of this collection I did get a small feeling of sameness, or of wanting to go back to Asia or Central America again for a breather.
Still, my absolute favorite story was set in Africa, and Coyne, in his stable good-judgment, has saved it for last. It’s Norman Rush’s “Alone in Africa,” which, for my money, has everything, not only a deft and inventive Batswana language lesson
She wasn’t saying anything. What was he supposed to do? He concentrated. He had to get her name. He thought, Asking a name must be O mang? because O’kae? means ‘You are where?’ and mang means ‘who.’ People said O kae? When they met, all the time. The correct reply was ke teng, meaning ‘I am here. He would try O mang.
but also a complex and thrilling journey into that darkest of all continents, sex between expatriates and natives. Rush knows how to unfold the issue almost anthropologically, while never failing to make the pulse of his reader keep beat to the overheated time. Listen to this:
It was science the way he got the key into the lock in the dark and swung the door open silently, lifting it on its hinges. Before he could say anything she had slipped into the kitchen, holding one hand behind her to catch the screen door as it came shut. He closed the door. This was all so fast. He was having misgivings. They stood facing one another. He could hear that her breathing was agitated. He needed a good look at her. He pressed his hair down behind his ears. He was overheated. So was she. Somebody had to say something.
Notice the way the longer sentences at the paragraph’s beginning give way to those shorter, stuccato, ones nearly a pant at its end. It’s lecherous and lusty, pathetic yet perfectly observant; the outside world’s pathology disrobed with the protagonist, a magenta-colored condom fitting over those complicated desires that transport us all.
Stories to teach by
I teach literature and have ordered Living On The Edge for my next semester’s class. How better to push the envelope, how better to make young Americans want to know the world, than to introduce them, one story at a time, to John Coyne’s excellent collection?
Richard Wiley is the author of Ahmed’s Revenge which won the 1999 Maria Thomas Award for Fiction presented by PeaceCorpsWriters.org.