Shifting Ground, Falling Floor

Shifting Ground, Falling Floor

A very special thanks to Todd Fulmer, a faithful BULL reader, for sending me this book by an author who, not only had I never read, but don’t think I’d ever heard of.

There was absolutely no author biography in this book, so while I have to assume this Stephen Wright is not the Stephen Wright, the comedian who was big in the 80’s and 90’s, who delivered his monologue in a slow, dry observational drone, and who I once saw at the State Theater in Kalamazoo circa 1998, I cannot be absolutely positive.  It’s times like these, that I have to admit, I miss the Internet.  Then again, not knowing anything about an author add a a little mystery to the experience.  Thomas Pynchon’s name wouldn’t carry nearly the same cachet if he did tons of interviews and readings, talk shows, etc.  He was on The Simpsons once, but his cartoon likeness wore a paper bag over his head.

Going Native is billed as a “novel,” though I think that descriptor is close to being wrong, but one wouldn’t be able to call it a collection of short stories either.  I might break down and use that literary buzzword of the past 20 years, “linked short stories,” or worse, “novel in stories.” So, “novel” it is.

This “novel” is eight chapters dealing with completely different characters and situations, joined by a character named Wylie who is married to Rho, the two of whom begin the book by throwing a little get-together for a couple of old friends.  Here is a fairly typical authorial description of Rho, who is yelling towards her husband as he goes upstairs:

“Don’t get lost,” Rho jokes.  Though the edges of her lips are numb, the glass in her hand keeps finding a miraculous way to her mouth, and she’s cozy, she’s entered into a nice state of encapsulation, a daiquiri astronaut, communications link down, support systems nominal, destination unknown, she hasn’t a care (28).”

Who can’t relate to being a “daiquiri astronaut?”  Or some other kind:  Whiskey astronaut.  Wine astronaut.  Tom Petty was the Cocaine Cowboy.  But I like “astronaut” better.

I soon got the feeling that there was no telling what any of these people might do.  Wylie goes upstairs to the room of his two small children, picks up a pair of binoculars, looks out the window, zeroing in on his wife and friends on the deck below.  It is amazingly and wonderfully weird—Hitchcockian, even.  More than the recurring character, this unpredictability is the real thread holding this whole book together.

Going Native reminded me of Raymond Carver’s stories, had he lived longer and spent about a decade watching movies alone and ingesting some psychedelics that shamans in the rain forest use on patients (the longest  chapter is a world trip through a jungle of Indonesia).  Carver is a little different, though.  There is solid ground somewhere in the story, no matter what brilliant shiftiness might be going on among the characters.  Here, there is no such thing as solid ground.  It’s always moving, getting kicked out from under the reader.  The following quote is from the aforementioned trip in Borneo among the Pakit tribe, former headhunters (I always felt like someone was going to get their head chopped off):  “Her attention was caught by movement closer to hand and she noticed that the ground near her feet, or at least the grasses, leaves, and bark chips covering it, seemed to be alive and heading in her direction”  (225-226).

I like to know what’s going on.  Period.  When something I’m reading doesn’t let me get a handle on everything in the pages, that makes me uncomfortable.  Though I would be loathe to admit it, part of the joy of reading for me is knowing things are already decided.  Nothing really dangerous or unexpected—as opposed to reality—is going to happen.  If Emma Bovary dies, it hurts for awhile, but there is no funeral, relatives to comfort, children to raise.  Fictional events are unexpected, but not really (if they are really upsetting, you might be a fictional character yourself, or a real character in need of real psychiatry).  If fiction were music, I prefer a tune, not dissonance.

This need for control, for solid fictional ground, is my own problem—my own bourgeois—if you’ll allow for a little pretension—expectation of structure.  So, that there is no solid ground is not, in the end, a knock against Going Native.  Ultimately, that slipperiness is a strength, a safe place to feel the shifting ground.  The strange fun won me over.  Like this from the third chapter—the “driver” is, I think, Wylie using the identity and car of his friend, one of the people he was scoping out with the binoculars:

It was the driver’s turn.  He eyed the road around the upraised burbling bottle to the visible astonishment of a passing minivan marked “St. Paul’s Church” and a gray-haired woman in a beige BMW who shouted from behind big sunglasses her angry opinion of such recklessness, a caution he blithely ignored.  “How anyone manages to negotiate the treachery of the modern freeway system sober is a complete enigma to me” (87).

With a group of others from the 13th floor of Neely Hall at SIU-Carbondale, I went one night to a party at an old house ubiquitous on campuses all across America, and probably the world:  a wooden two-story converted by some slumlord to sleep a dozen or more.  There were at least 200 people at the party, mostly outside, but a police car creeped past and those 200 quickly crammed inside the large living room, like ants faced with rain.  The wood floor began to bow downward from the weight, then up, and after a minute or two, the crowd got into a rhythm of bouncing, until the floor broke through the joists, and the 200 dropped to the ground beneath.  The threshold of the front door was now at chest level.

I realize, now that I’m older and sober, that we were all lucky there wasn’t a basement, that the drop wasn’t farther—college kids die every year when a second-story deck gives way from the weight of too many bodies.  The drop of that floor was a feeling I’ll never forget (I can still recall it perfectly after 25 years!):  thrilling and horrifying—a carnival-ride without any pretense of safety concerns.  So, just a regular carnival ride, because carneys are hardly paragons of responsibility.

For an instant that night, 200 of us were Saluki Submariners.  Or Drunk Dumbasses.  Leave it to college kids to break a fucking house.

Going Native
Stephen Wright
Farrar Straus & Giroux (1994); Vintage Contemporaries (2005)

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About the Author

Curtis Dawkins is BULL's chief book reviewer. He earned an M.F.A. from Western Michigan University and is currently an inmate at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, Michigan. His short story collection, Prison Ink, is the first release from BULL Books.