Every Town, USA

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“Our world is fragmented, Amanda Eyre Ward seems to say, in all the ways that it might be. I’m going to put it back together for you, slowly. Take my hand.”

Novelist Amanda Eyre Ward’s new collection of short stories, Love Stories in This Town, is at once classically aware and contemporarily hip. Readers will find the Austin Chronicle next to Hamlet and Othello, Cipro and Shiner Bock with the Boston Ballet, “I don’t love you anymore” alongside “the attacks in al-Khobar,” (though not always in the same story). Ward’s writing is crisp, fast-paced, hard-edged—descriptors that reviewers often shy away from, but I slap boldly here on the page, when, after all, on the cover Thisbe Nissen boasts that “it’s impossible to put this book down.” Seems like I’ve heard this tired claim somewhere before. Yet, I suppose what is, is.

Ward’s stories march along in staccato by the agency of strings of finely tuned, rarely fragmented sentences that line up like pearls. And yet, the effect is one of a world of fragments: broken love, broken lives, broken dreams. The book is organized in two parts, the first made up of six independent stories, the second made up of six stories centered on one character, Lola. We cover a lot of ground here: Montana, Saudi Arabia, Texas; we move through defining events: terrorism, internet startups, masturbation. Some of these are earlier stories, stories Ward wrote before she published her first novel, Sleep Toward Heaven, in 2003, and some came later. Perhaps Ward might be charged with cobbling together a book for the sake of another book out of old stories that don’t really belong together, but I’m not the man to make that charge.

As I see it, the book’s fragmentation is intentional (and even if not intentional, what of it?). Ward leads us through these fragments from beginning to end, slowly piecing a world together, bound for a unified whole. The narrative is shaped like a funnel from the first story to the last—it moves from scattered and wide to a gathering at the end of that narrowing space. Our world is fragmented, Ward seems to be saying, in all the ways that it might be, and I’m going to put it back together for you, slowly, take my hand, let’s pace ourselves.

I like this.

Part two, centered on Lola, is the stronger half of the book, which points to Ward’s prowess as a novelist, her talent for developing and sustaining story and character over the long haul. Some writers link stories out of an inability to make the transitions necessary for a novel; Ward, however, is working in the opposite direction, leaving out what she ordinarily can’t help but keep in. Lola is a compelling woman, and we experience her from both third and first person points of view (another example of this fragmentation, but the effect is, again, one of unification). She has a great deal in common with the writer who created her: both Ward and Lola were/are graduate students at the University of Montana, married a geologist, moved to Austin, TX, bore children, etc. What shall we make of this?

My favorite story, though perhaps not the best in the collection, is “She Almost Wrote Love.” Because I am a limited and selfish reader, I am first attracted to stories that resonate with my own experiences and interests. Plus, I adore stories of “how we first met.” In this one, Lola meets her geologist husband-to-be, Emmett, who works as a raft guide in the Grand Canyon. She has just completed her journalism degree and, looking for adventure, she books an outfitted trip down the Colorado. I’m reminded of Pam Houston here. One night, after a brief flirtation, Lola visits Emmett in his tent. They are refreshingly direct and honest with each other:

“I wanted to thank you for… for the trip… Also I wanted to kiss you,” said Lola.
“Come here,” said Emmett.

A few days later, dizzy in love, the new couple take off the river, shower, and marry in Las Vegas. And that is that.

The river sequences are not over-dramatized, which I appreciate, but here’s the bad news: several details in this story don’t ring true for me, and so I must complain. One: Lola wakes one morning with the taste of Beenie Weenies in her mouth. I’m from Oregon (and Idaho), and have been running rivers since I was twelve. I know for certain that Beenie Weenies is never part of the fare on an outfitted raft trip on any river, except perhaps in jest, as outfitters pride themselves on preparing astonishing meals. Two: Emmett, the guide, sleeps in a tent. I don’t know any self-respecting river guide who sleeps in a tent unless it’s winter, raining, or buggy. And three: while I’m on the subject of boats, in an earlier story, “On Messalonskee Lake,” the character Bill “had always loved the paddle to Ashworth Island.” A couple sentences later, Bill “slid[es] the boat into the water and beg[ins] to row.” Unfortunately, you don’t row and paddle the same boat. Ward marks herself as a greenhorn with this error.

In “Motherhood and Terrorism,” Emmett takes Lola off to Saudi Arabia, where he is working in the oil industry. She is miserable, in general, and lost: “ ‘I don’t feel safe here,’ said Lola, ‘and I’ve almost forgotten who I wanted to be.’” This single line, for me, defines the lives of many of the characters in this book, and the lives of many of us, Ward’s readers. Fragmentation in the modern world is a product of a world of products, in which every new shiny thing just might be the thing we’ve been looking for all our lives. But what Lola seems to know here, if even she cannot act upon it, is that each of these objects is a dead end, that she has always known who she wanted to be, perhaps who she is meant to be, and the true path is one of re-discovery. We must search for the original self between the fragments, Ward seems to be telling us, in the spaces, the gaps, the mistakes wherein this true self was lost. The structure of Love Stories in this Town—and I do think this is Ward’s greatest achievement—is not only suitable for our world, but a reflection of it. It is not just another shiny object which might be the thing we’ve been looking for, but a mirror which we must look into.

Kurt Caswell is the author or two books: An Inside Passage, for which he won the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize; and In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation. He teaches creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University. More from this author →