Monday, June 20, 2005

Deliver Me From Nowhere by Tennessee Jones

The concept of this collection, which was recommended to me by a former undergrad, is that it is modeled on Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. I'm not enough of a Springsteen fan to have that inform my reading too much, but the idea of thinking of a story collection in the way of a concept album is an interesting one. I've been talking with my grad workshop about whether or not writers should have a recognizable sound or look, the way many musicians and visual artists do. Or if we should move through distinct periods the way Picasso and other artists have. A number of writers clearly do have styles or subjects that they hold to for much of their work --Faulkner, Hemingway, Morrison, DeLillo. Is that something writers should be conscious of or just allow to happen? When I was an undergrad I studied with Russell Banks, and I remember him once staying you should experiment a lot when you're young because once you're established you are forced to stick to what readers have come to expect from you. At the time he was writing Rule of the Bone and researching Cloudsplitter, which is probably my favorite of his novels, and I like thinking about how Cloudsplitter was his rebellion against the kind of book people expected him to write (typically about contemporary, working class, alcoholic, New Englander men). Yet it has a lot of the themes--father/son issues, race, class--of his other work. So while stylistically it's quite different, it still fits his ouevre. And I like the thought of going deeply into certain subjects or places over a period of books. But I also like the thought of writers being able to try out all different styles and even genres --like Jane Smiley does. But back to Jones, whose writing in this book I really admired. The stories feel a part of a whole--they do gain a deeper level of emotion by being read together--and do have a single sound. Although they use different narrators the voice of each story is pretty much the same and so becomes the voice of the book. I like that for this book, but I don't want all story collections to fit that mold--which it feels like publishers and their fancy for connected stories--are trying to make happen.

There is a fair amount of violence in these stories and Jones does a nice job of keeping the stories so quiet that the violence never feels melodramatic. He does in a number of stories fall into a pattern of plot that goes something like tip-toe, tip-toe, tip-toe, Shout! --in which the stories focus on mundane, unthreatening behavior and end in death or beatings or murder. But the consistency with which he does that from story to story actually makes for a more interesting statement--here's how ordinary people end up doing extraordinary (often extraordinarily bad) things and so the stories again mean more because they are together. I suspect had I read certain of these stories individually without the rest, I wouldn't have liked them as much.

But what I think Jones does best is use summary or lines of narration to deepen a moment. Sometimes they are funny but weighted lines like: "While we were driving, I started to feel something like I imagined religion was supposed to feel like. I almost wanted to clap my hand on his knee and yell, 'Hey, George, I think I got religion!" What I like about that quote is the way it makes use of the imagined moment. It's a combo of showing and telling--the scene didn't actually happen, but the narrator creates it ("clap my hand on his knee") so specifically that the reader is inside the narrator's head imagining what the narrator is imagining which is even more intimate than seeing/hearing what the narrator is seeing/hearing. Even stronger are lines where Jones uses telling in combination with showing like: "They all got shitfaced that night and it was like a pure, falling joy." Out of context maybe that's not the most convincing line, but in the story it really worked to show the relief certain characters felt in giving up. So I'd read Jones mostly for the quality of the writing, and at the risk of sounding like a publisher, I'm curious to see what he would do with a novel. My one dissatisfaction with these stories was they felt a little too slice of life, often ending with a drastic action leaving a reader wondering about the effect of that action. A novel would give Jones room to look at cause and effect.

1 comment:

Sarah-Jane said...

I think Deliver Me From Nowhere is a fantastic collection of shorts that touches on subjects like faith, religion, hope and redemption as well as more obvious subjects like gender and sexuality. I think the fact the stories are inspired by Springsteen's finest and most under-rated album is a bonus, but really they work as wonderful shorts on their own accord. I also think Tennessee Jones has a fantastic voice and if he was signed to a big agent or publisher instead of a brilliant but under-resourced one like Soft Skull Press - he would have recieved a lot more critical acclaim for this book. I personally can see him develop into a great writer like Annie E. Proulx given the right breaks.