Scott Dominic Carpenter’s This Jealous Earth is the first book published by thriving literary journal Midwestern Gothic’s new press, MG Press. While Carpenter was born and currently resides in Minnesota, his first short story collection spans a host of geographical regions and American life experiences. He ultimately divides the stories into three unnamed sections, roughly unified by themes of reconnection, the beginning of loss and miscommunication, and death. While Carpenter’s stories are usually realist and character-driven, he isn’t afraid to dabble in the quirky (“General Relativity”; “Sincerely Yours”) and the unsettling (“Donny Donny”; “The Visit”) when exploring the darker mysteries of life.
Perhaps unintentionally, Carpenter has also arranged his stories so that the best are saved for last. The stories of the first section, and to an extent, those of the second, demonstrate Carpenter’s talent as a writer but also, when read together, illuminate certain repetitive faults, specifically a monotony of syntax and plot formula, and a certain lack of subtlety. More specifically, many of Carpenter’s stories fall flat at the end, where he has a tendency to bring forth any obvious, cheesy themes and hence push aside any other complexities of his stories from the reader’s mind.
But as I said, Carpenter apparently saved the best for last, and as I read on, these faults seemed to subside. The second section opens with “Field Notes,” a story about three young boys on vacation in Arizona with their unhappily married parents. While “Field Notes” again felt forced at the end, Carpenter’s ability to write a longer story with multiple complex characters shines as he shows the three boys’ interpretations of their parents’ unhappiness, their relationships with each other, and their distinct stages in the process of growing up. While perhaps too short, “Sincerely Yours” also stands out in this second part of the collection as a particularly clever and original story about a supposedly overdue bill payment and absurdly incompetent company representatives.
A few additional stories that deserve mention are “Future Perfect,” “The Phrasebook,” “Foundering,” “The Visit,” and “The Birthday List.” All five of these feature a distinctly different writing style from the rest of Carpenter’s relatively straight-forward pieces. For these, which on the whole are also shorter than his other stories, Carpenter reaches for a different set of literary tropes—primarily the second person and a greater use of modifiers to create a flowing, eerie atmosphere. On one hand, these pieces break up the tone of the collection. Many of these pieces are incredibly moving, especially “The Birthday List” (which ends the book), “Future Perfect,” and “Foundering.” On the other hand, they also feel strangely out-of-place, especially “The Visit,” in which Carpenter changes tone and perspective with a result that is simultaneously appealing to anyone who appreciates their literature unsettling and creepy (like myself) and yet also disappointing as he slips again into a land of clichés, this time stumbling into overused, flowery language.
Carpenter, though he usually writes in the third person, is very skilled at writing accurately in the voice of many, very different characters. He shifts easily from a shoplifting upper-class stay-at-home mother to an awkward middle-aged tourist from Ohio lost in a European museum to a little girl distressed about the imminent loss of her older brother. He works to match language and syntax to each character’s unique situation; this is clear in the very successful third section of the book. In “The Death Button,” a dark yet hilarious piece about an English major in love with his roommate, the narrator is selling his plasma to make money. He describes the seemingly alcoholic homeless man next to him at the center as “a stunt double for Walt Whitman—except that his nose was veined with purple and the beard was clotted with what appeared to be bits of partially digested fettuccine.” Carpenter takes full advantage of his narrator’s literary knowledge, to the delight of the story’s readers:
Old Walt leaned over and stared hard and close, as if meaning to count my nose hairs. The sourness of his breath, a generous burp of which he shared, suggested we might soon see more of his vomitous emissions. Leaves of grass indeed. It was at that moment, when we met eye to eye in the clinic, that I inquired about how often he frequented the establishment.
He squinted at the volume of T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland in my hands. “I read that once,” he rumbled. His cheeks bulged, and with considerable exertion he suppressed a new gastric eruption. “I thought it needed editing.”
The pleasantly sarcastic tone of the narrator (seen in phrases such as “a generous burp of which he shared” and “vomitous eruptions”) further aids the reader in picturing this intelligent, insecure yet awkwardly cocky, and slightly, cleverly caricatured, hipster of a college student.
Generally Carpenter’s writing is clear and delightful. I was especially tickled by one sentence that is, yet again, in “The Death Button”: “The closet served as an echo chamber, the louvers leading to the lovers, tuning me in to their amplified antics while I lay half-enclosed in the hollow under my desk like some mournful crustacean.”
The exaggerated heartbreak and the overuse of alliteration almost makes you cringe, but here, the image of this gawky English student saves this language, as it seems only imaginable that he would desire to tell his love story as “poetically” as possible. To truly win his readers over, however, Carpenter found the magical simile of “like some mournful crustacean”; as awkward as his narrator, this image is Carpenter’s own nod and sly smile to the reader.
In This Jealous Earth, the green earth in question is envious of heaven, of the afterlife. Carpenter’s use of this title illuminates the cyclical nature of his collection, but really draws attention to the intensity of the love of earthly life, the fiery and futile need to be alive right now. Carpenter begins with death juxtaposed with the quotidian (“The night before the killing, Walter plucked silverware out of the dishwasher and thunked it into the drawer”), reining readers in by placing them in a familiar, if slightly uncomfortable, place filled with empathy, grandparents, and other homely accessories: dishwashers, refrigerators filled with beer, koi ponds. Carpenter then strips away layer upon layer of artifice, superficiality, and expectations in a quest to be true to his Swann’s Way epigraph and feature those desiring to express, at long last, a kind of truth. The trouble is, no one knows what this truth may be. The final narrator states: “I want our dead to be alive again. I’d like my whole life resuscitated. I want not to have wished for that. I want to forget. I want to remember. I want to live forever. I want to die, right now.” But those words become meaningless, linguistic attempts at earthly salvation. The collection may start with death, but it ends with one grasping and gasping for life.