Monday, March 16, 2015

On "What Solomon Saw and Other Stories" by Mary Dean Cason ****

What was hard for me to believe, after finishing this collection, is that there is no acknowledgments section that lists off places where these stories have previously appeared. I'm guessing that this fact demonstrates how difficult it can be to find homes for longer stories that are well written but not in some way exceptionally strange, unless you already have a pedigree and a name to go with it. Every one of Cason's stories reads like that of someone who has mastered the form, and at least one of them managed, at least for me, to be truly masterful in terms of eliciting actual tears--that is an emotional response in addition to the usual intellectual nod of the head with regard to how well put together the story is.

The stories themselves range across place but seem most often to be set in the American South. They concern characters of various ages and appear to run chronologically in the sense that the first stories are about children and the later stories are about elderly people, such that I thought at first that I was going to be reading a book of coming-of-age stories.

And in a way, that's a bit of a shame, because Cason hits her stride really with the stories in the middle of the collection, the ones involving adults at middle age.

The early stories present characters who are often too innocent to understand what's really going on. In the title story, for instance, Martha finds out that the may have to give up her tree house because a frenemy fell from it and ended up going to the hospital. Of course, what was really going on was some sort of attempted seduction pulled off by her brother, but for various class and religious reasons, no one will acknowledge such. My guess is that the story is the lead one because it's beginning is so utterly captivating and its voice so strong, but the payoff, for me, proved a bit disappointing in the end. The next story also involves a child, in this case one trapped in a restaurant when a jilted husband attempts to shoot his cheating wife. There's a great deal of tension in this story, as there is in many of Cason's, and it's when we hit the next stories that the collections really took off for me.

"Oh, Canada" involves lovers mixed up with the mob, a story which takes the tension of the previous piece and ups the ante many times more. However, as with most of Cason's pieces, the endings usually don't turn to the dark side, as I would have expected. In some cases, there may have been a bigger emotional payoff for me if they had, but perhaps that is just my taste. "Oh, Canada" was nevertheless gripping from start to finish.

A couple of stories involve motherhood--the inability to have children, the desire to have children. One involves a priest who almost gives up his calling for a woman. One involves a man who takes pity on a woman who is crippled by a stroke and thereby cheats on his wife. Each of these stories, though seemingly familiar content, are so well told and so singular in their characterizations that they seem original again.

The story that most got to me, however, was "Avalanche." In it, a woman finds out that her late husband, who died in a skiing accident, left behind a locker of goods that includes a very fancy pair of woman's boots. It doesn't take much detective work for the woman to realize that this tragic events has actually revealed that her doting husband was in fact having an affair. The emotional toll is, of course, devastating--but Cason turns the story around in other ways that eventually lead to a conclusion that is as tear-jerking as it is redeeming. I look forward to reading more of Cason's work. Hopefully, some will show up in magazines and journals so that her readers won't have to wait for her next book.

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