Wednesday, March 27, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 23

Frank Soos on David Crouse's COPY CATS

I read for different reasons. I read for well-made sentences, for fully imagined characters, for events that push characters into revelation or discovery. But I reread for stories that explain the world to me, that reveal possible ways I might fit into the world. And the stories that compel me the most are the ones that force me to see elements of myself that I'd rather not know are there.

The stories in David Crouse's Copy Cats work that way. These are fearful stories, stories about people, mostly men, who've run off the rails in one way or another. These are not evil, vicious people, rather they are delusional, inept, representative of what any of us might become when our ordinary lives are upended and we don't know what to do next.

Here's a middle-aged father in "Morte Infinita." Maybe his wife has run off with a dark handsome stranger, Stephano, or maybe she has simply run off to her sister's house because his neurosis is just too hard to take. He seems incapable of loving his wife; actually he seems incapable of loving himself which makes it hard to love anybody else, even his thirteen-year-old daughter who finally begins to understand him better than he can understand himself. The two of them go trick-or-treating as father-daughter vampires, but his costume with its white Converse All-Stars is lame, and his gestures more resemble Groucho Marx than Bela Lugosi. His final gesture, to throw a rock through his neighbor's picture window won't solve his Kiekegaardian dilemma, "To be sick to death is not to be able to die," but it is at least an action, an ugly step toward some possible meaningful action.

Kierkegaard also recognized the cure for despair was in the recognition of its symptoms. In this regard, Jonathan, the central character in "Click" is farther along. A scholarship student at a privileged school, he has fallen into a romance with Margaret, child of a successful businessman. What she has seen in him when they were students seems to have been a spark of rebellion, of creativity. Jonathan would be an art photographer, though it is hard to know whether this is a true ambition or one that Margaret has wished on him. They are living together and soon to be married despite the fact that Jonathan has lost his job—he's been fired, actually, for habitually skipping work. In his idle time, he's connected with a drug-addled woman, maybe a prostitute and a woman more sexy, vulnerable and dangerous in Jonathan's mind than she may really be. Through his photographs, he would bring her tortured qualities to the surface. But these qualities don't show up in the pictures Jonathan takes. He takes fewer pictures with each visit.

Jonathan knows he is a fraud, living a fraudulent existence. He sees the loafers outside his model's window as kindred spirits. They aren't going anywhere and neither is he. The question he cannot resolve is what to do about it. The men in "Code" and "Retreat" face similar problems. They have failed, are failing, but they don't work to solve their problems, but find short cuts for escaping them.

If there is a character who makes some effort to solve his problems it is Tom in "Swimming in the Dark." His high school hero older brother has drowned swimming in the middle of a lake, a metaphor for the family's confusion. But Tom's mother, needy and weak and hoping for a man who can save her, keeps trying to make a life for herself. Her latest loser, Harris Fencer, drives an ice cream vending truck. Tom is a passive observer of his mother's struggles to the point that he doesn't intervene when she gets in a tussle over a lamp. But he does listen and consider. And he does grow up and away from his mother and older sister and their small town. In his telling of this story, Tom begins to grow into a more thoughtful person, somebody able to see the limits of his younger self. He's been damaged by what he's experienced as a kid, but he's not ruined. He, of all the characters in Copy Cats seems to have made the best of his tumultuous circumstance.

I think of myself and most of the people I know who have decent credit ratings, whose checks don't bounce, whose lives mostly navigate between the ditches, and I wonder how much of this is just a matter of luck. A little mistake here, another there, a stumble, or an unexpected reversal and the life of a character in Copy Cats is waiting to unspool. So I reread these stories and when I don't reread them, I think of them often, troubling, cautionary tales. These people could be me; they could be any of us.


Frank Soos is author of UNIFIED FIELD THEORY (1998). He is also professor emeritus of English at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and author of the essay collection Bamboo Fly Rod Suite.