“Is That You, John Wayne?” by Scott Garson
What of the moments that make our lives? And how can those moments make art? In his famous closing sentence in The Renaissance, Walter Pater says: “For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” When talking about this in relation to the movement called Imagism, critic Hugh Kenner added: “The art toward which it leads is a passionate attention to transient effects, and an attention which, rescuing them from the flux of time, will render them static, hence pictorial.” Imagist poets flared up briefly in the early 20th Century, born in reaction to the discursiveness of the Victorian verse. They have a little in common with that length of prose writing commonly known as flash fiction that has had its own renaissance in the last decade due to the arrival of the internet and its shorter pieces that befit a limiting screen size and the attention span of one clicking through the endless amount of pages electronically born and reborn each day.
Following in the steps of such modern day masters of this intricate form, including Lydia Davis and Kim Chinquee, Scott Garson has embraced it, bringing his own brand of American disharmony often seen in those forbears. The majority of stories in his second collection Is That You, John Wayne? run from a page long to three, and they are the crux of this collection bent on exploring the sadness of life, the missed or missing opportunities, and the stasis our collective cultures seemed to have emotionally entered while we fly and speed about with technology that probably has not made us treat each other any better. His static pathos is exemplified by the first sentence of “Say My Name”: “The sex had been artless and rushed, like drinking down water.” The “sex” grabs of course, but to call sex “artless” makes one swerve the fictional dream onto a dangerous avenue, while the simile “like drinking down water” stamps the described act with a filigree reinforcing the “rushed” by the consonance of “drinking down,” an action that is all slake, with no pleasure or sensuality about it.
In this terrain of broken homes containing single parents, step parents, ex’s (one story is called “Note to Dickwad Ex-Stepdad”), and ugly uncles, people are trying to stay together, trying to make their children happy, trying to manage enough money to live, and are looking to escape the desperation that comes from too much yearning—all major entanglements of middle and lower-middle class America (Carver country). The story “Interstate” is barely three pages but it speaks more to the concerns of sacrificing oneself to something greater than many shelves of self-centric fiction published in the last few years. Here a father takes his sick boy to a hotel off the freeway. The child is going to miss Halloween so he wants to talk with his grandmother, in lieu of a mother that seems absent. The father makes to tell him a story about camping with the boy’s mother, but the boy doesn’t want a story with her as the subject—all we know is that whatever mother there is, it’s complicated. After the grandmother calls them the father goes out to smoke but leaves the door open, “so [the boy] could see [his] shoulder”—a poignant detailing of what would give comfort. The boy asks if there’s anything out there and the father says, “Not really,” but then adds in his narrative voice:
But it wasn’t so. There was a moon, big and round, and telephone wires. An intersection, vehicles swishing. There was a sky. It was huge. Slow yellows and grays. I watched as if it was my duty.
These details would seemingly be unimportant to a child. It’s the life he’ll one day have to get used to—the sky he’ll have to lean on. Why concern him with it now? The father needs a reprieve. What is he getting out of the moon, the “vehicles swishing” and the “slow yellows and grays?” He gets as much as he needs, but the “as if” steers the “duty” somewhere away from the meaning such a stark word nominally carries. The “duty” here is pock-marked and a little bent out of shape. Perhaps it isn’t so much the glue that holds families, but the pull that continually remakes them and enables them to go on.
In “Kiss of the Underachiever” Garson turns the familiar “desire in a bar” story into something uniquely propelled by the sound of the words. Describing the narrator’s kiss with the bartender, he says:
The kiss wasn’t heavy or too high-stakes. It had come, I’d have said, in a natural way, just part of the conversation: a kiss that was really a thought of itself, if thought was a factor at all.
By saying it “wasn’t heavy or too high-stakes” the repetitions grab like the kiss itself, no matter if it was “natural.” After the loaded “come,” Garson gets to the real triggering clause, “a kiss that was really a thought of itself,” that tempers the lust and pulls one out of the sometimes glorious, sometimes vainglorious science of two strange sets of lips meeting—an idea reinforced two lines later with, “Isn’t that grace? All foresight taken from you. You’re nothing, just sticks of chance.” The sacred and profane meet existentialism here—this pair’s stasis doesn’t lead to light, only to something asunder.
Since 2008 Garson has edited the internet journal Wigleaf, which has set a standard for quality flash fiction and has been the force behind the Top 50 Flash Fictions of the Year—one of the few regular prizes bestowed on this challenging form that can suffer no extra word, no extra comma to stain so brief a picture. In this collection of many prizes, words and punctuation artfully placed adhere to Pater’s dictum and, as great poems do, encourage multiple readings, as we feel the unhinged souls of the characters try to find a way to make things right when most everything tells them they can’t.