Stories by Gary Powell have the uncanny effect of pulling you into a total-immersion experience. Thus did his first collection, Beyond Redemption, and now, three years later with Getting Even, comes the same dunking into a milieu so familiar, its essence so masterfully engaging you feel like grabbing your younger brother Pete, riding your bicycles to the nearest abandoned warehouse, and hurling rocks through the building's windows. I did, anyway, and I've never had a younger brother named Pete or anything else. But I was right there with Pete and his older brother Billy smashing pane after pane in "Home Free," the first story in the book's first section, City with a Heart.
"When the glass shatters," says Billy, who's narrating the story, "I feel the sound in my heart like those Fourth of July fireworks that burst with a dull thud but leave no streamers." He adds, "I can’t wait to hear and feel what it’s like when a full can of beer busts out a window."
Eventually sirens approach but we...I mean the boys, dilly dally a while, continuing their fun, until we know they're definitely coming for us...them. Whether they get home free, as the title suggests, or what, you'll have to find out for yourself. But a photo of their window-shattered target graces Getting Even's startling cover design.
One of the facets of these gems...I mean stories, that bring us into the action as silent witnesses, is the feel of an ensemble cast that appears in various guises throughout the collection. Some appear to be just names—Billy, Pete, Rusty, Dick...we don't always get last names—but others we see as boys and later as adults. All of the tales take place in the Midwest, where the characters live most of their lives. Dick Griewank is one we look in on several times. In "Fast Trains" he's just been laid off from his job at the local recreational vehicle plant. Down in the dumps, he reflects on his life after losing his wife, Brenda, to cancer. All he really cared about anymore after that, he whispers to us, was his cherry red Camaro.
He reminisces about the car, in his mind and with friends, the adventures they had with it. One, he'd do by himself, racing a train to a crossing and getting past it across the tracks in the nick of time. Out of work now, he'd had to sell the Camaro, and had bought a used Ford pickup. I held my breath as we raced that truck beside the train to the same crossing… I’m breathing again, and just so you know, we join Dick once more, in “Shave Head and Baldwin.” He’s still down on his luck. It’s a short, suspenseful story with a noose, made “from a five-strand hemp rope purchased at Menard’s,” dangling in a cabin. It’s the story’s focal center. Please do not jump to any conclusion about this, but we don’t see Dick anymore after that.
Norman Mailer, in one of his earliest stories, “The Language of Men,” illustrates how it’s not so much the words themselves that matter to men, but how and when they are spoken. Gary Powell understands this well. His lead characters are men, and they know what to say, what tone of voice to use, when to speak and when to remain silent. They’re so authentic, even as boys, I believe I knew many of them personally. The females in Getting Even are supporting characters, and they strike me as genuine as the men. But the stories are mostly about the men.
|Gary V, Powell|
“Sugar Ray on the Precipice” is the last nerve-wracking piece I’ll mention here, but it’s so well crafted, with incremental suspense and character development that I felt I’d read a novel when I finally reached the end. Filled with laughs along the way as we see Ray at a party of colleagues from the insurance company employing them coming slowly unglued as the conversation reveals indictments coming down that most likely will end up with Ray going to prison for engineering a fraudulent insurance “product” that was supposed to make them all rich. The story’s narrator keeps changing Ray’s name the way the boat in the comic strip Pogo changed slightly in each panel. “Slick” Ray, “Famous” Ray, “Lucky” Ray, the adjectives tighten with increasing irony as Ray, an alcoholic who’s fallen off the wagon at this party, struggles to appear unrattled. He finally smokes some pot, climbs to the roof, and ends up teetering at its edge…
I got the most laughs out of a droll piece called “So Over You” about four guys who meet each month at a different bar to talk about women. Eddie’s usually missing, but he’s included in the endlessly repetitious chitchat. Here’s a sampling:
Blake says Michelle is special and, seriously, what hole?
I say Dave didn’t mean anything.
Dave says he’s sorry, he didn’t mean anything about the hole in Blake’s heart and wishes he could take back what he said.
If Eddie’s there, he says the kinkiest thing he’s ever done was sumo wrestle a woman. This girl Lynn, a graduate student at Drake, dressed them both in thongs, and they wrestled, belly to belly on the floor.
If Eddie isn’t there, Dave says he can see how the age difference might have been an obstacle for Cheryl but not for me.
Blake says fuckinay.
My favorite of them all is a bittersweet little story, “Rusty Love Suzie,” featuring Jake Blosser, whom we first meet as a high school athlete hanging out with his less disciplined buddies in “Super Nova.” Now he’s the town’s police chief trying to protect the water tower from former schoolmates who paint their names on it. The mayor’s worried about liability if someone falls off doing the mischief, and Chief Jake’s hoping to talk some sense into the perps. But Rusty Weaver, whom we meet in “Thunder Snow” making out in the back seat of Dean’s Jeep with Suzie while Dean and Rhonda are doing the same in the front. Anyway, fast-forwarding, Rusty and Suzie marry and divorce, and Suzie dies, so Rusty, on what would have been their fortieth anniversary, climbs the tower and, with a paintbrush. honors her memory.
“So, what kind of man arrested another for honoring his ex-wife’s memory on the damn water tower? Not Jake Blosser that was for sure. They didn’t pay me enough for that, especially with retirement on the horizon,” the chief reflects. When another of their friends’ wives dies of cancer, Blosser’s wife Kim starts worrying. She finds a lump in one of her breasts, goes to the doctor for tests. Meanwhile other husbands and lovers are climbing the tower to honor their women, and Blosser finally figures to hell with it. When Kim gets the good news her lump is benign, it’s time to celebrate. You already know how this is going to end, so I hope you won’t mind my laying it right out for you. Like I said, it’s my favorite of the collection. I’ve read it several times now, and I daresay you will, too. Here’s Chief Jake:
After I got hold of myself, I stopped by the Ace Hardware for spray paint, then cruised the water tower. I parked and considered the prayers, declarations, and remembrances, all heartfelt and honest, placed there by my neighbors. I climbed in broad daylight, uniform and badge in plain sight, and found the one remaining vacant corner. Like I said, they didn’t pay me enough, and retirement was just around the corner.
I made my contribution.
Jake and Kimmie Forever
Not to be outdone by Rusty Weaver, I used pink and purple paint, drew curly-cues and such.
Wondered what Fosner and the mayor would think about that.