Thursday, November 24, 2016

On "Spooky Action at a Distance and Other Stories" by Tom Noyes ***

Tom Noyes's collection of tales merges religious concerns with violence, oddity, and the regular day. As such, it doesn't seem to have that much drawing the pieces together, other than a few characters that seem to repeat. The strongest stories involve violence of a sort, mostly because we are treated to watching something unexpected slowly develop until we completely understand how such a thing could happen--in fact, had to.

"Here, There, Yonder" is told from multiple perspectives that all fit in the same setting. One is a boy flying for the first time. Another is his grandmother, returning to visit her two sisters, who years before she stopped talking to. And yet another is a flight attendant who is in a somewhat unhappy relationship with another flight attendant. I'm not sure what we're to glean from the differing perspectives except perhaps that the adults seem to have a number of broken relationships that the innocent young boy has not yet discovered is part of life.

"Everything but Bone" is a slice-of-life piece about a divorced man and woman who reunite to attend the man's father's funeral and about their son, who brings along his new girlfriend, a kind of carbon copy. There is a focus, in part of the story, on hair, on how it outlasts "everything but bone" once we're dead. This hair plays a role in each man's life in the story, defining them but also hiding them. Memory is hard to piece to together.

"Love Canal," one of the stronger stories from the collection, involves a pastor's family. The pastor is replacing a former pastor who ran off with one of the wives of his congregation (one might assume the wife from the opening story, "The Straightened Arrow"). But what seems an easy task--simply not messing around on your wife when you are pastor--becomes much more than the pastor bargained for.

"The Daredevil's Wife" is a short piece about Niagara Falls barrel riders.

"Greeting Phantom" focuses on a newly but less-than-happily married couple with a newborn son. The husband creates an imaginary to entertain his son with; the wife does what she can to push the ghost away. But still, the couple is together, while upstairs, what appears to be a less well-off couple that has split up is actually a couple who are dealing with health issues. This is the first in a set of stories in which violence is heavily implied or present. And maybe it's that passion that makes these latter stories feel as if they matter more.

"Wrong Hands," the strongest story in the collection, is about an out-of-shape man who takes up dieting and exercise at a gym--or seems to be about that. But as the story progresses, and the man becomes more and more heavily involved in weight training, a kind of violence begins to pervade the story, as the man is caught up in a way of life in which machismo plays a larger and larger role. Soon, just as his eating was once out of control, his anger becomes out of control.

"Rot and Squalor" focuses on a high school basketball coach whose disappointment in his team and desire to motivate it turns darkly violent.

The title story is cleverly told tale of a man who believes he is the spawn of a dead twin. The story comes to us via recordings to his psychologist.

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