The Scent of Man: Cameron MacKenzie’s River Weather

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It is difficult to read stories that might have been written about people from your childhood, your brothers, your early idols, first boyfriends. It is also easy. The characters in Cameron MacKenzie’s short story collection River Weather—the narrators, the antagonists, the men-shaped hollows: they are so familiar you can smell them. I can. They smell like dried sweat, occasionally whiskey, possibly a hint of Drakkar Noir that seeped beneath their skin in high school, worn that one time for that one girl they never “got” but who never left their consciousness precisely because she was created there. They might smell of their grandparents’ houses, where they spent a good bit of time—if their own homes were broken or built on brokenness. But you don’t get to know much about childhoods or families in this book. These stories are set pieces, intense moments-at-hand between friends and colleagues rather than family, mostly situated in the aftermaths of the formative years. An exception is “Swiss Seat,” a grim tale set in the bike-riding time of early-mid adolescence, that MacKenzie drops like a dark drain in the center of the book. The rest of the book circles the question asked there: how do we become who we are, by what inclusions and omissions, by what risks and what monstrous failures to act? That shadow era is also touched upon in the first story, “Scenarios,” where a seventh grader describes the soundtrack of his eventual suicide to an appreciative audience of peers.

In the cohesive world of River Weather, men and boys live in, just moved to, or have returned to the edges of the world, recently clear-cut and excavated—a turn-of-the-millennia soulless suburbia rife with addictions of all kinds and absent even the retro-futuristic glimmers of magic in backwards-glancing media such as Stranger Things. Their world is relentlessly bereft, and they are locked out of hope somehow, except for the tendrils of it they extend to each other. But these are mere filaments of mold grown on a letter in a bottle lost at sea. These men cannot save each other. They’ve sealed away their full humanity, even as they do rails or shots or listen to Terry Gross on NPR or mentally defend (but also doubt) the honor of the Indian-American classmate on whom they’re crushing hard. Many have a romantic notion of how life’s supposed to be that extends as far as owning one’s own dog, zip-lining through a hidden canopy, or protecting an ex’s house at the edge of soon-to-be exploited woods. These men/boys believe in territory, though any claims they make they know to be suspect. But this knowledge comes in glimmers, and they do not act on it.

And in that instant I had the distinct feeling we’d made a mistake. That we shouldn’t have been there, or, it wasn’t for us. The creek and the trees and the line that ran through it.

This unarticulated sense of loss—in artists it is called melancholy—festers. But the men in this book have no art through which to exorcise their noonday demons, just bars and bravado. In “A Non-Smoking House,” Patterson, a house renovator whose pride in his craft is being squeezed out by “money-fear,” goes postal in a Home Depot-type establishment. It’s not so much loss of control that sets him off so much as the inability to do well what he knows how to do well. His newly hired hand ends the scene by fighting him out of the store, and with this violence comes release, joy even. Patterson mocks the manager who’d protested the spectacle with the words, “You’re scaring the women!” That’s clearly not a protest that upsets him.

Women pose another unspoken problem for the men in River Weather because women—along with any men perceived as other in language, nationality, class—seem to them a different species, whether they’re the ex-jock-wife of a high school teammate, a demented and cruel mother, an exhausted partner resented for her sainthood, or “[a]nother creature altogether.” It’s hard to read about these brothers of mine, recognizing them, watching some of them recognize themselves, able to do nothing about the tragedy of their inchoate grief-turned-rage but witness it, or worse—fold it in and in. It’s also riveting.

What I think MacKenzie has written is a white ballet, a ballet blanc. In European concert dance, this term refers to a sub-genre of the form where the dancers are dressed in white tutus, looking like dead dandelions blown across the stage by forces beyond their control. It’s not true of course: helplessness is just the deeply fraught illusion. “Hold on,” you may ask at this point (among other things), “aren’t all ballets white?” And I’d laugh, and then cry a little, knowing how glacial change can be in structures reliant on one-to-one transmission. Mentorship.

Many of the stories in River Weather’s stage revolve around a single pas de deux, a duet where one character leads and one follows. The lead is often older, a seasoned contractor or wrestling coach or alpha boy-man with all the answers who has done this hyper-masculine dance for decades or—if not decades—seems at any rate born to it, unflappable at every turn, functioning as trained up until the moment that training leads to ruin. He is, in other words, a real soldier, “something for us to, to look upon.” The follow acts as questioner, faltering, opening syncopated gaps in the inevitable progression of the movement. He’s an addict whose own recovery is tethered to his married friend’s failing sobriety. He could be an uninspired but talented athlete whose coach is desperate to reach something asleep inside him, or himself. The differences between the partners ebb and flow, drawing you with them, like the troubled breathing of the man beside you in your bed, if you have that sort of thing in your life—intimacy with someone you can’t completely understand. MacKenzie-as-choreographer renders his characters’ suppressed conflicts and assimilations with such tenderness that his care seems a separate character in the story. You watch the intricacies of the weaving partnerships through gesture and stillness, through cutting dialogue and sadder silence, asking how they can possibly go on, how they have gone on up to this point.

These stories end at moments after which nothing should be able to remain the same . . . not without contortion into even more impossible knots, further deformations of feeling. And that is the horrific probability of this text—that nothing will change. Toxic and tacit masculinities inhabit and infect the very technique that reveals them, the resigned observations of the characters. They occasionally glimpse the trap they’re building around themselves, but cannot see a way out, not for them.

Having grown up inside the form, I can’t seem to talk about ballet without discussing paucity, the self-denial of needed sustenance, the tautness of compelled limbs, the strange strength and strangled beauty. River Weather has all of this, though its protagonists would no doubt bristle, balk, or beat me up over the analogy—if I weren’t a woman. Maybe even so. And this would become part of the dance.

The process of becoming a late 20th/early 21st century North American lower-middle-class white man is a highly coded system, one that this book argues cannot continue without fundamental change or endless tragedies, large and small. That I find these characters sympathetic, that I wish them whole while assuming they will never be: This is the beauty and frustration MacKenzie has so elegantly combined. It is easy to hate these men, but I have loved them. Here—in this book—and long before, and still. And they love each other. They are capable of that, along with every other thing they are shown to be capable of: rage, contempt, violence, inaction. They are able to stand and watch each other die, literally, and perhaps worse—in all the other ways as well. They have learned to carry their fallen, often within, have sewn shut psychic wounds without cleaning them, without questioning their origin, without fathoming what the sepsis that follows will bring to their infant son, fussing inside the house.

By the end of River Weather, I found myself identifying deeply with the paranoid old woman filmmaker who, in the last micro-story in the collection, has cut down the Japanese maples ringing her property. You want to amputate the poisoned wood; it only makes sense. But do that, and you lose a beauty that cannot be denied and the potential for future growth, and those are here too—seeds planted, if not for the men the author has placed on stage, then “for the people on the ground.”

Upturned earth smells of trenches, graves, the hasty surgery that precedes slipshod subdivisions, but it’s also the scent of early spring. This muddy and metallic odor is one I’ve come to associate with boys bursting in from the cold, not yet lost to it, anxious for the thaw. My own sons are 22, 19, and 16. It’s hard to watch them skirt the gaps that still appear out of nowhere . . . and such a relief when all they bring home is a whiff of the chasm.

Kirsten Kaschock, a 2019 Pew Fellow in the Arts and Summer Literary Seminars grand prize winner, is the author of five poetry books: Unfathoms (Slope Editions), A Beautiful Name for a Girl (Ahsahta Press), The Dottery (University of Pittsburgh Press), Confessional Science-fiction: A Primer (Subito Press), and Explain This Corpse (Lynx House Press). Coffee House Press published her debut speculative novel—Sleight. Recent work can be read at Fence, Bennington Review, and Diode. She teaches at Drexel University. More from this author →