TO BE BRIEF is a review series focusing on chapbooks, novellas, and other short-form fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. If you’d like for your work to be reviewed in TO BE BRIEF, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the title story of Ryan Werner’s excellent fiction chapbook If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train, two brothers trade blows and head in opposite directions. It’s brief and powerful, packed tight with the heft of violence, familial breakage, and movement – physical and emotional – that Werner invests in all of the stories in the collection.
There’s a beautiful tension that rises up in the chapbook, a tension between the big actions and emotions of the characters and the relatively small spaces in which those lives are fleshed out on the page.
Werner’s people are constantly in motion, even when their lives have become static. There’s bad advice out there about needing to get characters out of their day-to-day lives. Werner disproves that advice by having the day-to-day be the thing that is creating movement internally and externally. And what we call movement can also be called desire.
What holds Werner’s stories together other than that movement, that tension? Echoing ideas and images. Take “Origin Story,” in which a young boy is missing his brother, who has disappeared. The boy looks for answers in comics and in his family. Everywhere he looks, there is the echoing of “two.” Everything in the story is paired up, though of course, the unstated pairing – the fractured one – consists of the narrator and his missing brother. The echoes remove the need for a more fully fleshed-out narrative. They create trajectory through repetition.
Werner’s masterstroke in the collection is the pure simplicity of emotion that manifests in the characters. Werner’s not afraid to let his characters show very simple emotional reactions – love, desire, jealousy, anger, all of the above – though he’s also not afraid to take those simple emotions and reveal their complexity by investing them in the scenes he builds. The narrator of “Origin Story” closes by saying, “I walked around to the front of the grandfather clock and stood under the light by myself. The room became louder than the people in it and I could feel us all feel it, tools and dust and foundation settling in deep until even that went away and it was just me and the clock and a click, the pendulum swinging one way and another.” The emotions that Werner has fleshed out earlier in the story thrum with the scene, and what was simplistic becomes complex. In the stories in If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train, Werner strikes this balance again and again. The result is beautiful, terrifying, and human in the best possible way.
If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train is available from Passenger Side Books.