Review: Thorn

Book by EVAN MORGAN WILLIAMS
Reviewed by KAREN UHLMANN

Thorn

The protagonists of the 15 stories in Thorn, by Evan Morgan Williams, are a diverse cast: Native American, white, black, Asian; young and old; men, women; rich, poor. Yet Williams, who won the 2014 G.S. Charat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, with this debut collection, is able to inhabit his protagonists, as well as to empathize with them. This is no mean feat. Many of Williams’s protaganists are women in crisis, and he has an uncanny ability to take on their voices.

All his characters are struggling, isolated, and vulnerable. They harbor secret yearnings and are ashamed of themselves for them. None get what they desire or need in these stories, many of which are heart-wrenching.

These diverse worlds collide, but the people cannot communicate between them. In “Ivory,” a deaf woman literally can only hear about half of what people are saying, the blanks indicated by long dashes in the text. In “Steam,” the family of the anorexic young protagonist talks past her and each other. In “The Great Black Shape in the Water,” a powerful Native American mother, rumored to be strong enough to heft a beached whale back into the ocean, succumbs to the shame of her husband’s abuse. She hides away and stops telling her daughter the magical native stories for which their tribe is known. She gives up on mothering and life. Her sorrow and shame become her legacy to her daughter, as the tribe dwindles to nothing.

Though his writing is strong and his imagery opulent, Williams occasionally falls into the predictable patterns. Women are beautiful—often the most beautiful woman that the narrator has ever seen. Lipstick is cherry red. In two stories, children are forced to drive cars for sleepy adults. Yet he is a careful listener, and this comes through.

Williams uses diction throughout the collection to define both class and personality. In “Ivory,” the deaf wife hates her arrogant lawyer husband’s affectation of using non-standard, presumably Indian speech patterns. (“We got us a few minutes.”) In “Giveaway,” a black firefighter working on a Crow reservation who is reading Italo Calvino, alternates between a toned-down urban street talk (“Isabelle, ain’t nobody talking about you.”) and more high-faluting language (“I do not share your apparent compunction.”) when talking to a sexy Native American woman. She is educated and proud of her college degree. When she speaks to the firefighter, she speaks standard English, but slides into casual grammar when talking to her relatives.

Thorn raises complicated issues. Williams is white, from Portland, Oregon. He worked in the National Park Service in Montana for two years and has lived on a Crow reservation. Yet he has faced criticism for his Native American stories. In some quarters, writing in a voice outside one’s race or ethnicity is considered offensive. In an interview in The Fourth River magazine, Williams said a prestigious magazine rejected a story for fear it would upset a Native American author. Williams defends the writer’s prerogative to speak through any character he or she can create convincingly:

I am aware that when a non-Indian writes about Indians, it can be a sensitive issue, but once you’ve lived on a reservation, you see that the issue is infinitely more complicated than that, and I’ve tried to capture that complicatedness in my stories. Besides, writing about a truth that you feel is always fair game. In fact, one of the things that might have drawn me to writing those stories is the fact that Indian life is really complicated, but it’s also at a bit of a remove, which makes those complications easier to explore. Maybe that’s true for minority cultures in general.

While the settings and times of the stories vary—from dusty Montana to the Northwest Pacific Coast in 1942 to modern-day California—many of the characters, especially the female ones face similar issues, such as sexual abuse and eating disorders. The more pronounced differences in the tone and style of the stories arise from characters’ class and wealth rather than culture. Not that the wealthy get off easy. Money doesn’t make them happier or nicer.

“Ivory” is one of the most moving, as well as the strangest, stories in the collection. Susan and Jim, an unhappy couple, are driving to a reservation with a wad of cash to buy a whale skeleton, an illegal purchase, to hang in their great room. Susan feels that they are pressuring the Indians, taking advantage of tribal generosity, and flaunting their wealth. Jim, a lawyer, has no such sensitivity. Susan gets so mad that she tunes him out literally—by removing her cochlear implant. At the reservation, Jim barters with Kenny, whom he knows from representing the tribe in a fishing rights conflict. Kenny is obviously uncomfortable with the transaction. The conversation gets tense when Kenny’s adult son, Bobby, joins in, pressuring his father to get as much as possible and emphasizing their hard times. Then, Susan realizes she’s lost her $60,000 implant. Jim instructs her to go out and search for it, and Bobby goes with her.

Bobby confronts her about her wealthy lifestyle and their differences, including his time in Iraq as a soldier. Susan, caught between two male bullies—one rich, one poor—starts to cry, and he tells her the story of killing the whale, after hitting it accidentally with his boat:

These are poor times, and the devil comes knocking twice you don’t leave him out in the cold. So there was this whale, and we had to make a calculation. I didn’t want nothing to do with killing no more, but I didn’t want it on no one else’s hands either.

She ends up telling Bobby her heart is broken and asks him, inexplicably, to bash her over the head with a whalebone, offering $10,000, and her Rolex for this deed. Bobby asks for her diamond wedding ring, as well, but she refuses, saying it’s a reminder of her heartache. He complies, and, as they are leaving, he gives her the whale’s cochlear bone. Susan and Jim depart without her implant or the skeleton. It’s clear, however, that she has a concussion and a ruined marriage.

Williams leaves much in this story—and many of the others in Thorn—unresolved. Why has Susan begged for a concussion? Is she so unhappy that she thinks physical pain will alleviate emotional suffering? Does she think she deserves to be punished for living in comfort when others—including those who have paid her husband—are suffering? How is it possible that such an act of violence could pass unnoticed?

The connection between hunger and love is another theme of the collection. “Steam” is told in a close third-person that channels the voice of a recently hospitalized 17-year-old anorexic, Megan, who is out with her Japanese-American family for a birthday meal in a Japanese restaurant. The story is written without capital letters in chunks of text. Megan’s thoughts are poetic and disturbing. “The strips of meat are tender and soft, bright red, like a pretty girl’s lips.” Her father’s suit “looks tight in a scary, heart-attack way.” Influenced by a trendy bulimic cousin in Japan, Megan wears little girl clothes, walks knock-kneed, and carries a doll. The same cousin showed her how to puke up a meal, but Megan prefers starving.

Her family lives in Santa Barbara, but Megan and her 10-year-old sister go to school in San Francisco. Right before the sisters flew home, Megan was coerced (or possibly forced) into oral sex. She is unable or unwilling to eat, although she desperately wants to get the taste of the boy out of her mouth.

megan crumbles the rice, sorts the clumps on her plate, makes the rice seem eaten. no one objects, but only because they, too, are pretending. megan knows they don’t believe her, no one is fooling anyone, but this is how they talk to each other. when you have broken each other’s hearts, you talk this make-believe way.

The pretty, too-thin waitress notices Megan is not eating, as she takes away the uneaten food. The family becomes increasingly anxious. At the end of the dinner, Megan’s mother forces her to take a bite of rice, which she pretends to eat, but hides under her tongue. Her brother takes her aside and confronts her. Trying to get away from him, Megan accidentally ends up in the kitchen with the waitress, still hiding the rice in her mouth, a bizarre twist.

“you want something.”

“i don’t want anything.” a line of saliva slides down her chin.

“yes, you do.” the waitress puts her finger on megan’s face and strokes her skin. she presses megan’s jaw. megan begins to chew.

The waitress is right. “all her life Megan has been told to want something.” Megan deludes herself by believing she does not want. The waitress feeds Megan five more morsels of rice. Then she takes the snow globe Megan has been given as a birthday gift, dumps it out, and fills it with rice. She kisses Megan on the lips before she goes. “it is the way megan wants to be kissed, tender and sweet as jelly.” At home Megan spells out poems with the rice. Messages she can text to her Japanese cousin. “a sexy way to kneel in front of a boy. a new icky flavor in her mouth. how to taste as little as possible. how to taste nothing at all.” The anorexic Megan’s wish to erase desire (as well as herself) through physical suffering in “Steam” resembles Susan’s wish to replace her unhappiness with pain in “Ivory.”

The arrangement of stories in a collection is an art in itself. While most of the stories in Thorn are set in the present, the first and last serve as temporal bookends. The first, “The Great Black Shape in the Water,” is set in 1942 and the last, “The Limousine,” in the 1950s. Both stories capture cultural shift, the moment when the old Indian ways die in one; and when mainstream America becomes modern in the other. In “The Great Black Shape in the Water,” the government hires Quihwa men, who are traditionally fishermen, to log as part of a war effort. The men leave the women and children alone for weeks, and their diet shifts from salmon to canned meats, lard, sugar, and coffee. The women grow fat. The men have enough money to smoke and drink. The tribe dies out, its lores disappear.

Watching nuclear bomb tests from a ridge is entertainment in “The Limousine,” a first-person, coming-of-age story set in a community of tract houses outside Las Vegas. The dad, who has “sniper eyes,” (he was a sniper in World War II) works for the Atomic Energy Commission. The mom makes her own dresses. The dad tells her she is beautiful, but comes home late every night. There is also the complication of a sexy teenage cousin, Sarah, who lives with the family. The father is certainly attracted to her. The mother hates Sarah. The young narrator loves her. All of this lives under the surface, unsaid. “Everything that needed to be known was known,” the narrator says, ironically. Into this “absence of mystery,” the narrator’s dad brings home a limousine—actually a used luxury sedan, a ’49 Dodge Coronado—which forces these undercurrents into the open.

I was old enough to understand that a toxic sadness had gripped my mom and dad a long time ago, yet I would say the limo was pivotal for me because its appearance at our curb caused a deeper mystery to become apparent to me. I am talking about hope. You need to understand Las Vegas in the fifties. A car was magic. A car was the conduit to life and love.

But the mother, furious that her husband has bought the car—with its suspiciously capacious back seat—ruins his moment by telling him to let Sarah take her beau out in it. Jimmy, the narrator, tries to get Sarah to kiss him before she takes the car out. But she tells him that Debbie, one of his playmates, will be the girl for him. Everyone but the audacious, bodacious Sarah is doomed to disappointment in this story.

The boy takes over the car when he is 16 and devotes himself to its “smooth curves I could touch without fear.” What he is afraid of is his sexuality. It’s been repressed, as many things were in the ’50s. He has sex with Debbie in the car finally because she insists, and the car wouldn’t start. Afterward, he tells himself that he is happy. The still dead limo, which must be rolled downhill to get it started gets scraped and dented. The narrator, for reasons that aren’t clear, feels that he deserves the destruction of the car because he wanted the hidden desires to be known.

We are not allowed to look away from the unhappiness in any of these stories, which is a lot to ask of readers. It is hard to not find a shred of hope in 251 pages, no matter how strong the writing. Williams has described this as a deliberate choice in anAntioch Review interview:

Thorn connotes something prickly. That felt like an apt description of the stories. They’re not happy stories. The characters are grappling with change, or with the choices they’ve made, and I don’t go easy on them.”

He doesn’t go easy on us, either.

 

Karen Uhlmann’s stories have appeared in Fiction Southeast, Southern Indiana Review, Enizagam, and other magazines.

Review: Thorn

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