Here, in Charlotte, North Carolina, early winter is grey with rain and clouds and cold. And something about the color of the sky makes me miss Louisiana. I picked up Louisiana Purchase by Elizabeth Burk (Yellow Flag Press 2014), and while I hoped that it would quell my craving for roux-based poetry, I did not know how fully it would suit.
When I was reading J. Bruce Fuller’s Notes to a Husband this summer, I was also moving in with my boyfriend. And while Fuller’s chapbook is about a relationship ending, there is so much wisdom in these short notes from a wife to her husband that rather than finding a guide to ending a relationship, I found reminders of how to be fully in one. And yes, this is a composition of loss, but it’s also a guide to mindfulness.
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.
In his book on writing The Lie That Tells a Truth, John Dufresne argues that, “Every character has a public self and a private self and a self that he doesn’t even know about.” As I moved through the five stories in Kirsten Clodfelter’s fiction chapbook Casualties, the tension between those three selves manifested again and again. Clodfelter’s characters are forced, often through societal expectations, to present one image of themselves, but their internal lives – known and unknown to them – push against that social standard.