Gregory Orfalea’s collection of linked stories demonstrates that conventions are there for a reason—and it’s often harder to follow the rules than to break them.
Among the many throwaway putdowns of creative writing degrees, one often hears that while these programs might well help with competence, they can never make talent. The old antinomy arrives like bad, expected weather: We see the third rate toiler, the talentless try-hard, the burned-out failure; and then beside him or her, gleaming in the dust, is the effortless genius, the prodigy, the born master who spits out classics between cigarettes. That this is all bullshit is often acknowledged, but the myth persists.
In this vein, to call Gregory Orfalea’s debut short story collection, The Man Who Guarded the Bomb, supremely competent might come across as one more uptight literary insult. But Orfalea, approximately a generation older than most of today’s MFA students, has competence to burn, and these carefully refined stories are master classes in craft. If this still sounds a little backhanded, it is; but given that the collection contains 1) a heartwarming story of adolescent romance in multicultural America, 2) a post-9/11 story of racial intolerance, and 3) a story entitled “All I Have in This World,” it is no small gesture to say that I liked it.
Take this passage, from the first page of “A Portrait of the Artist in Disneyland’s Shadow”: “Before I introduce the young lady at the hub of this ruckus, and the gang that surrounded the terrible ardor, let me part the dust.” Putting aside the urgent need for a moratorium on bad parodies of Joyce titles, I should say that Orfalea, a professor at Georgetown and author of two well-received histories, knows how to put on a voice that conveys the energies and tics of a character. But the phrasing and the cadence baldly announce these chops: not only those glaring chunks—“hub of this ruckus,” “the terrible ardor”—but the awkward rhythm of this self-consciously comic piece of pretension.
But Orfalea’s builds better stories than sentences, and this first story is about the best in the collection. A quick and compelling narrative about adolescence in the California suburbs—with all the horny fantasies, best friends, front lawns, as well as some happy potshots at the old and ridiculous arithmetic of Catholic sin—it closes with a flash of sentimental warmth and leaves no hangover. The stories which follow are variously successful. In “The Chandelier,” a boy treks across a starving Lebanon in World War I, looking for food. Cut against the contemporary plenty of Pasadena, he comes across a city where his mother is said to have bought the last cup of flour. In “Get Off the Bus,” Frank Matter is ejected from a bus for looking vaguely non-white and discussing terrorism after 9/11. Where “The Chandelier” succeeds in being both political and singular, “Get Off the Bus” reads like a polemic, stumbling under the heavy importance of its politics.
But The Man Who Guarded the Bomb hums along, pleasant and sometimes lovely. Orfalea writes with the journeyman’s wisdom that conventions are there for a reason, that it is usually harder to follow the rules than to break them. The refreshing strangeness of “Vivi in Hell” is excused because the title character is insane. Although weighed down by some clichés and generic crazy-woman lyricism (“How does the moon avoid its eclipse? How does the grass avoid its trampling?”), this story does show Orfalea trying to move past vanilla sentimental forms. A counterpoint to the opening story of suburban banality, Vivi, unhinged, references Clytemnestra and Lady MacBeth and J. Alfred Prufrock—and dreams of revenge.
Though marketed as an Arab American writer, Orfalea’s stories creep across the West Coast. As it travels, the trauma of the central family, the Matters, unfurls across several disjointed stories. Orfalea sets up a series of shocks, a gradual revelation in monologues, slips, and asides, in an attempt to bring a novelistic plot into a loosely connected series of stories. But the collection hasn’t even finished its foundations when the final drama descends, and so readers might not be coaxed into the final shudder the author intends. But as much as Orfalea might pretend otherwise, his view of America is not dark, nor strange, nor even angry; and within the various dramas of The Man Who Guarded the Bomb there is a pleasant and worldly sentimentality which, as Eat, Pray, Love frolics its way back up the charts, seems important to reclaim.