by Rob Davidson (Grenada 199092)
University of Missouri Press
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 199193)
PERHAPS IT'S SELF-SERVING TO SAY SO, but material a writer finds as a Peace Corps Volunteer tends to be rich in dramatic possibility. This is certainly true of Field Observations, Rob Davidsons fine debut collection of short stories. The two best stories in this nine-story collection both touch on the Peace Corps experience.
In A Private Life, a Volunteer on Carriacou finds herself romantically involved with a doctor from Guyana. They are drawn to each other because of the similarity of their circumstances: both are foreigners in a place that isnt particularly welcoming. But if they are strangers in a strange land, they are also, despite their sexual intimacy, mostly strangers to each other. This changes when Jo confronts Ravi about whether the rumor about him that he has left a wife and family back in Guyana is true. A Private Life isnt particularly uplifting Jos house is robbed, dashing her latest effort to reach out to her community but the story is realistic in its portrayal of a Volunteers feelings of alienation and longing.
In Barnstorming, the narrator is more of an observer than a participant in life. Appropriately, hes a bird-watcher: He hid in thickets, under big trees, on rock outcrops or under them. Just about anywhere he could go where he could comfortably sit still and go unnoticed for long periods of time. But his cousin, an RPCV, takes him up in a biplane, then subtly proposes another kind of adventure. What Laurie, the cousin, says about the narrators mother applies to her as well: That womans got it where it counts. She does what she wants, and she doesnt care who gets pissed off.
The other seven stories here offer their own surprises and satisfactions. As in Barnstorming, the central characters often find themselves overshadowed, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes disturbingly, by others. In the collections opening tale, Inventory, the narrator, a warehouse manager, tries to keep Harold, a volatile employee, in check. But Harold, like Lenny in Of Mice and Men, is destined to have an encounter with rabbits. Its up to the narrator to do what he can to prevent disaster. In You Have to Say Something, Fran, the storys central character, meets Sam at a coffeehouse. Sam is a woman with a history Fran concludes, and when Sam begins giving regular gifts to Fran even gifts she seemingly cant afford Fran grows suspicious of her motivations. Their confrontation over Sams generosity could make or break their friendship.
The collections funniest piece is The Hillside Slasher, in which the narrator writes a letter, delivered posthumously, to one of his or, rather, his and his wifes victims. There is nothing macabre about the story. Murder isnt the crime, slashing tires is. And the motivation isnt madness, but politics.
Several of Davidsons protagonists are down on their luck, and under a heavier hand, their stories might have been saccharine. But Davidson doesnt shy from finding small triumphs in otherwise victory-less lives: the comfort a neighbor offers, the promise of a borrowed automobile.
In What We Leave Behind, a former NCAA champion college golfer finds himself selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. But he doesnt feel sorry for himself; neither does Davidson feel sorry for him. His voice, like Davidsons throughout the collection, is straightforward, plain and observant. His small triumph comes about through circumstance, but if you ring enough doorbells, youre bound to hit gold: He took the beer from the mantle of the fireplace, and thats when he saw the golf club sticking out of the umbrella stand next to the patio door. He picked up the club. It was ancient iron, with a worn, slightly tarnished head and a blonde, wooden shaft.
Davidsons stories dont offer the psychological intrigue of, say, stories by Alice Munro or the lyricism of Amy Blooms fiction. But thats not their intention. Davidson aims to tell the stories of regular people trying to find satisfaction and maybe even a little happiness in a rough world. And he does this well.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and Steal My Heart, a novel.