Friday, July 1, 2011

E. Thomas Finan's "The Other Side": Book Review

Seven stories explore what happens when life turns out the way we never thought it would. For many characters, this dead-ends into a "teleology of despair." Finan's mood's glum more than chipper. Yet, these modestly told, straightforward short fictions manage to wrestle some redemption for some of those trudging through daily tedium.

The first protagonist, Lucy, laments her affair with a louche real estate developer and her marriage to an egotistical artist. She had met her spouse as she stood at an gallery exhibit of herself, between two large nude photos of her body, and her status as his trophy wife isolates her. It would be facile to show her self-satisfaction at the expense of the two men who contend for her favors, but Finan refuses this. Reflecting on her husband, she realizes: "She had put him on a shelf--as she had put her whole life on a shelf. She had tried to make the flame, the one she had wanted, the one reaching all the way from her thighs to her throat, a dead bauble."

"Motley Black" as the second entry exposes the soul of a less physically attractive character. The narrator mingles the deadpan numbskull vernacular of Ring Lardner with the erudite misanthropy of Alexander, or Paul, Theroux. The narrator travels across the country to get to Key West, to flee Californian stupidity, but he meets plenty more rubes en route. Finan's satire may be familiar for the heartland grotesques his narrator skewers, but it remains entertaining.

He carries a copy of Robert Burton's venerable and hefty "The Anatomy of Melancholy" with him to repel conversation, even as he must exchange a few vacuous pleasantries. The first woman in line at the bus has eyes "like marbles--cloudy and unreflective." He has the seat next to his taken by a man "past the humped zenith of middle age," while a third rider sits among "a nest of noxious smells" that permeates any bus's interior. This story moved into an intriguing direction, even if the antagonist appeared too sudden and inexplicable in her infliction of vehicular revenge.

As the title "Dunes Like White Elephants" conjures up an homage to Hemingway, this tale appears more of an exercise for a creative writing seminar in responding to a familiar story than an original entry. It does not let down the reader, but its own ambiguity does not advance that of "Hills Like White Elephants" enough to argue for its inclusion other than as an exercise earning a passing grade. Similarly, "Billy Stevens is 28" moves along steadily, but its own exploration of uncertainty in everyday Connecticut at a high school reunion does not reveal any surprises. "Billy Stevens gets up everyday because he gets up everyday." As with Lucy, Billy finds himself wondering about the meaninglessness of it all. But he cannot move beyond the limits which Lucy attempts to overcome. The story stalls, as he does.

"The Tie That Binds" shifts away from suburban malaise into a homespun pace as the last members of a Congregational church in Vermont make their meeting place into a museum. Compared to the previous stories, this feels old-fashioned, a far different voice than "Motley Black," and for this, the range Finan displays deserves a nod. Not much happens in "The Tie," and its voice seems as if from centuries ago, fitting the setting for the church in the New England town.

"An Aria of Windrows" (perhaps "Windows," as I have a galley proof) returns to more contemporary urges. A worker obsesses over a simple voicemail: "Hey, sorry I missed you. Catch you later." His life's as hackneyed and pointless as Lucy's or the narrator's on the bus to Key West or Billy's. It's as if Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Beckett entered the mind of the colleague in the cubicle next to yours. I am not sure this slim story can bear such existential weight, but Finan attempts to provide another anatomy, of "the illusion of immersive purposiveness."

Finally, the title story wraps up this small volume with a narrative reminiscent of O. Henry combined with Stephen King. Finan demonstrates his desire to try out another genre, and this telekinetic tale entertains. As with "The Tie That Binds," it conveys a more traditional setting and its own control and mixture of a darker tone with a lighter ending offers a cleverly balanced conclusion to this debut collection. (Posted to Amazon US & 11-15-10.)

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