Awfully good writing about awful people. This can be said of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction's namesake as well as the award's 1992 recipient. Commonality beyond these two broad distinctions, however, if they exist, are hard to find
The late Ms. O'Connor's style follows one of the basic commandments of good writing: she shows us what's happening. She doesn't tell us Grandmother is a domineering, self-centered hypocrite. We get to watch the old gal in action, bossing her unattractive family around to suit her fancy. In his winning collection of stories, The Consequences of Desire, we see little outward action involving Dennis Hathaway's characters. But inside their heads, oh, mercy. We're immersed in the kaleidoscopic battling of their thoughts and emotions.
Themewise the stories could hardly be further apart—on the surface. O'Connor, while keeping obvious signposts of her Roman Catholicism deeply camouflaged in subtlety, pushes her characters to extremes of happenstance, including death, where their mortal actions can bring them heavenly grace. Religion or spiritual faith are absent from Hathaway's tales. His self-absorbed characters invariably find their dreams, their hopes, their desires coming up short or crashing to pieces when they find themselves face to face with stark reality. Teenager Justine feels the dream she's had most of her life of becoming a private eye blink out when she loses her nerve tailing a mysterious stranger into a rough part of town.
The characters' awfulness is different, too. O'Connor wrote about cripples, criminals, freaks and nitwits—people she lived among in her native rural Georgia, a type that came to be known in literary circles as “southern grotesque.” Hathaway's people are Californians, mostly middle class--artisans and professionals—most of them unlikable in a sleeker, sorrier way. Because of her youthful innocence Justine is the least repugnant of the bunch. The sorriest is Paul Westerly, a mediocre architect who flees inwardly to insanity when his more talented former assistant surpasses him professionally.
Of the eleven stories in The Consequences of Desire the most engaging for me was the title story. This in part because the two main characters get equal time with us. Viewpoints in the other stories are limited to one, and in all but one the character who lets us into his head is male. And these males spend more energy silently dithering than executing. They are all Hamlet. The man in The Consequences of Desire, the story, has a tad more chutzpah than the others:
He stood in the shadow of an awning, watching a woman in a green dress waiting to cross the street, and in a characteristic way he calmly considered opposing courses of action—stepping into the sunlight and calling her name, remaining in the shadow until she crossed the street and faded from sight. Although he hadn't seen her for years he was certain she was the girl he had marched with down this very street, the girl whose hand he had held while singing an anthem whose words he didn't care to recall, the girl he had lived with briefly in a commune deep in the woods. She was heavier, he thought, and softer than the girl whose image was that of a fairy dancing in the firelight, dark and lithe and uninhibited. He observed that her face looked slightly drawn, as if by permanent tension and anxiety, and finally he abandoned the shadow, reached out to touch her arm and say, “You remember me, don't you?”
Comes the next paragraph, we're in her head:
She stared at him. The street corner, the parallelogram of sunlight that formed an enclosure in which they stood, the blue metal rectangle bearing the words TELEGRAPH and AVE, the handful of strangers waiting for the green permission of “Walk” all receded beyond the memory of an intimacy that took sudden and insistent possession of her senses, like a loud noise or peculiar odor. She stared at smooth cheeks rounded by the breadth of a smile. The face was unfamiliar but the voice tapped on the door to a room full of embarrassing secrets. She felt a sudden pressure behind her eyes.
If you hear the strains of that melancholy Dan Fogelberg Christmas tune cuing up in your head, they did in mine, too, as I accompanied these long ago lovers on their cautiously modulated steps of reminiscence and re-acquaintance toward the inevitable room where the tentative flare of a mutually tepid curiosity flickers out. What gives this story a depth not shared by the others is the back and forth between his point of view--his emotions, his memories, his calculations--and hers.
Of the four professionals who reviewed this work, only one seemed enthusiastic, which I find odd considering its award cachet. Perhaps even recognized excellent writing needs a tony marketing boost—a blurb or two from Franzen/DeLillo ilk, and free review copies for the Kakutanis and Corrigans—to stoke a buzz among readers who rely on assurance from name-brand taste arbiters.
The Consequences of Desire, despite its neglect, is still in print—paperback and Kindle. It's published by The University of Georgia Press. This alone might have been off-putting to three of the four professionals who reviewed the book. One, I suspect, only skimmed the stories. Whoever wrote the single paragraph for Publisher's Weekly completely missed the point of the title story.
In my opinion only Booklist did justice to Hathaway's work--at least this apparently abbreviated review, which is all I could find in an online search: “Hathaway is attuned to the vast distances between people even as they share a bed, a conversation, or a drink. He takes exact measurements of the chasm between fancy and fact, fears and longings, the mundaneness of reality and the tempting illogic of fantasy . . . These are perceptive, enticing, and complexly structured stories that illuminate the gap between thought and communication, the void between wealth or beauty and spiritual clarity.”
The eleven stories in this collection comprise Hathaway's sole canon of published fiction—again, this according to my online search. For the past nine years Dennis Hathaway has been president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, a Los Angeles community activist organization he helped found in 2006. Righteous work, no doubt about that, but if he has given up creating literature, for which he has a rare gift, that would be a damned dirty shame.
[Update: Three years after I posted this review, noting the collection was Hathaway's sole published literary work, he came out with an excellent set of poems, The Taste of Flesh, my review of which you can reach by clicking the title.]
[for more Short Story Wednesday collections see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]