Peace Corps Writers
Saying Secrets: American Stories
Saying Secrets

Saying Secrets
  by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 1988–90)
Writers Club Press, Inc.
146 pages

Reviewed by Karl Luntta (Botswana 1977–80)

EARLY ON IN SAYING SECRETS, it is evident that Christopher Conlon is — in the best tradition of writers of any genre — an honestPrinter friendly version writer.
     Conlon’s carefully crafted collection emerges from the premise that we’re all in pain, mind, body, and soul — life as a gestalt of suffering — and in some cases we’re pained more than a human being should have to think about. There’s a near religiosity at work here. It’s as if we’re all born with a snarling, sentient original sin, a heat-seeking original sin, sin that must, eventually, enter our lives. When it does, sometimes it’s bad, and sometimes it’s worse. Yet, as with all proper sinning, redemption is always at hand. That redemption, — sometimes nothing more than the will to live — must come from within.

Five stories of pain
The mostly young people who populate the five stories of Saying Secrets indeed seem to be cursed — often by secrets. In “The Map of the World,” a young black girl, assaulted by drunken racists, is raped and burned beyond recognition, yet she finds redemption in her medical care facility with another burn victim named Daniel, whose “skin was no color skin was ever meant to be.”
     In “Loving Anne,” a young boy in high school, whose mother is in a mental institution and whose father is gone, becomes fascinated with the life of Anne Frank. He later befriends a similarly lonesome girl from the other side of the tracks, whose drunk father does “things he’s not...not supposed to do.”
     In “Margins,” a young boy withdraws from his drunken parents and simply, tragically, stops talking.
     In “The Face of History,” a black boy on his way to ruin through drugging is saved by a friendship with an elderly white woman — a woman with a murky past.
     In the strongest story of the group, “Whispers,” a young girl living with her gentle but often drunk father, a father who loves to “say poems” to her, reaches adolescence with bad skin, low self-esteem — and a place in her father’s bed.
     One finds a thread beyond the pummeled souls who move through these vignettes, although looking for commonalities in a short story collection is not always fair. But just about everyone who is a mess here is a mess due to parents or adults in their lives who are drunk, absent, mad, or morally missing in action. The narrators — all the stories are told in the first person — are wounded by lack of elemental love, or just plain wrong love.
     We can all identify with crippled interior lives and personal histories that are chaotic, and Conlon has a deft touch portraying the travels of the savaged human soul. He succeeds in reaching us largely because there’s not a sentimental bone in this body of writing. His young burn victims, his incest victims, his killers, speak with simple and honest eloquence, inviting readers into their darkness, but never to feel sorry for them.

The real star
The writing is the book’s real star. Conlon moves between voices skillfully, from male to female, from black to white, from abused to amused. He reminds us that the best writing is lucid writing, just as the most vivid horror is ordinary horror. In this passage from “Whispers,” a grown daughter has escaped her childhood incestuous relationship with her father, and when he shows up at her apartment drunk and homeless, a victim of his own remorse, the simple scene is so agonizing it’s terrifying:

    I suddenly realize that his voice is coming from under me, that his head is near the floor, he’s whispering at the crack under the door. Not wanting to, I crouch down. We’re no more than three inches apart. “What?” I whisper. “I — I’ll say you a poem,” he whispers, “that’s what I’ll do. I’ll say you a poem, darlin’” There’s a long silence, a jingling sound, but I hardly hear it. I’m crying, my tears dropping silently onto the carpet. “Dad, go away, just please go away, I’ll have to call the police.” “No, wait, I’ll say you a poem.” Softly whispered. “I’ll say you a poem. Now — now, just wait — lemme — lemme think of one- — lemme think of a poem —”
         Silence. Slow breathing. Silence. is a print-on-demand Internet publisher, and while the realist in me knows that publishing is a tough business, the traditionalist in me hopes that mainstream publishing houses will sit up and take notice. Saying Secrets deserves it.

Karl Luntta’s fiction has appeared in International Quarterly, North Atlantic Review, Baltimore Review, Talking River Review, and the anthology Living on the Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Volunteers. His first novel will be published this year.
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