Here I sat on a boulder by the winter-steaming river and put my
____head in my hands and considered time – which is next to
____nothing, merely what vanishes, and yet can make one’s
____nearly pierce one’s thighs.
– Galway Kinnell
These lines open Jack Driscoll’s eleventh book, short story collection The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot. Driscoll, who began his career as a poet, cares about the progression of time, its steadiness and surprise. His suspenseful, lyrical short-form prose pays attention to the natural world and finds the poetry within stories. He creates space for his working-class characters to encounter what he calls “God spots”: moments of grace or clarity. While they are taking double shifts, trying to make ends meet, and getting in and out of trouble, they’re also noticing the current of a lake, the distant whine of a snowmobile, and “a comet’s tail burn out right above them, in disappearing arcs like tracer fire.”
The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot is composed of ten short stories. Kids, men, and women narrate in small towns and single-parent households, primarily from the lower peninsula of Michigan. The stories are mesmeric: a woman lives all of her ages in a day; a high school pitching star loses his arm during show-and-tell; squatters strike it rich; townspeople go missing; a mom’s new boyfriend melts down stolen silver into cookie trays as a little boy watches in awe.
The title story, “The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot,” centers on Wayne, a fourteen-year-old who is invited to visit his best friend’s family cabin. Forty-two-year-old Wayne, looking back on that summer, recalls finding himself alone with his pal’s mother, a woman who “I suspected had entered the final days of her marriage and for some reason, wanted me to know that.” Wayne tells us the story of seeing this woman naked, outside past midnight. What he first interprets as sleepwalking is eventually understood as a seduction of sorts.
They have a series of bizarre interactions, like this exchange:
“I’m always careful, Mrs. LaVann. And I’m a strong swimmer.” And then right out of nowhere, she said something about train miles. Like they were somehow calculated differently, and that there was a whole other universe out there, which she believed, over time, I’d see my share of. “I hope you do. It’s in you,” she said, and I thanked her for that, too.
Driscoll isn’t afraid of his character’s flaws. He puts their limitations front and center with respect and compassion. In the stories that follow, the delusions, addictions, and fears of the truck dispatcher, the old wrestler, and the waitress come to the forefront—and yet it’s still easy to root for their success. As for Wayne, his curiosity, confusion, and the lingering strangeness of his memories make him interesting. He spends a special amount of time going back to that last night at the lake, on a rowboat with his friend’s mother.
“Look, Wayne,” Mrs. LaVann said. “There’s the Goat Fish.” And then she pointed to the lake’s south end and said, “And there’s the Double Ship,” as if the sky were the sea, and we were mariners charting a course to who knows where. “There—the wreath of Flowers,” she said. “The Lover’s Knot… The Dragon’s Tail.”
Our heads were touching, and her wet hair stuck to my right cheek. They sky was clear. Back then I couldn’t differentiate one star from another, though I understood them to be millions and millions of light years away.
If there’s one recurring character throughout the book, it’s the state of Michigan. The temperature plummets, the northern lights become dueling mirrors of endless ocean and sky. Spinning rods cast out, loons fly overhead. Characters see their breath and propose under the stars. A cedar shoreline is: “so dense… if you somehow shimmied through and took half a dozen steps in any direction you might never, even with a compass, find your way back.” Sometimes the terrain even offers an answer to what a character is feeling: “A man’s mind in winter isn’t meant to be enlightened.”
Michigan is an important part of Driscoll’s personal narrative. Born into an Irish Catholic family in Massachusetts, he was offered a job teaching Creative Writing in Interlochen his late 20s and has lived in northern Michigan ever since. He understands how setting can assist in defining behavior and illuminating the possibilities and limitations for each character. The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot is part of the “Made in Michigan Series” from Wayne State University Press in Detroit.
The characters in this collection frequently daydream about time. Children and teens want to speed it up so life can start. Grown-ups ask time to slow, or rewind to get some of it back. Their fantasies can be as simple as wanting to rest their head on a life preserver, or looking at an old Polaroid, wishing they could return to the exact moment it was taken.
In “A Woman Gone Missing” it’s Vanessa, a thirty-three-year-old single mother, who is reliving a memory of her first love:
They’re standing on the abandoned soccer field of her old high school, and he’s hugging her from behind. He’d set the camera on a tripod, on a five-second delay. They’re in love. They’re facing into the afternoon light, and they’re almost glowing, radiant against the background of random, ordinary clouds on an ordinary late-summer afternoon in 1985. If she were to follow through, she halfway believes, for old time’s sake—for that moment when the shutter clicked and that already developing snapshot slid toward them—that he might reach out like he did then, and show it, along with those sprites and elves and blue jets: the tiny, bright emerald-colored auroras trapped inside raindrops that illuminate the nighttime ground as they spiral and fall.
The setting tends to step into the foreground in the final paragraphs while each story is wrapping up. It’s after the action, when characters are reflecting on what happened, looking outside fixated on a car’s taillights or the angle of snowfall. That’s when Driscoll’s poetry kicks into full gear.
And you remember you’re in the hands of a pro. That he’s writing from a tradition, from a terrain. That he’s interested in something authentic. He’s giving us gentle reminders; how in spite of our flaws and weakness, snow and stars can still slide in. Grace and “God spots” too.