Friday, December 18, 2020

Review of The Drowned Life by Jeffrey Ford

Somewhere in the ether there is the definition of American letters. Holding court are a number of writers—Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck, Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and others. The list added to with time, I think it's time to consider Jeffrey Ford. One of the first pieces of evidence I offer is The Drowned Life (2008).

The collection kicks off with the title story. “The Drowned Life” is the story of Hatch, a normal man running the rat race of lower middle-class life, trying to keep up with bills, his job, and the necessities of family. Giving up one day, he sinks into Drowned Town, and there sees life from a different perspective. A metaphorically story dense with both overt and unobvious allusion, Ford nails the never-ending game of catch-up poorer Americans play. A spot of flash fiction, “Ariadne's Mother” symbolically seats Ford's rather cynical view on being a writer in the 21st century. “The Night Whiskey” is a weird—perhaps Weird—tale of a town wherein a deathberry grows, and every year the inhabitants celebrate by drinking a little of the liquor distilled from it. Strange things happening while drunk on the strong spirit, even stranger things happen one particular year when a new Harvester is needed. Not Ford’s best work, but a solid story. While less a story and more a mind map of remembrances of encounters with the ubiquitous little insect, “A Few Things About Ants” ends up in territory beyond memory in an interesting way.

I've always loved Jeffrey Ford for being baldly honest, and in “Under the Bottom of the Lake” he seems to throw his hands up, give in to writer's block, and just say: “Here, dear reader, is insight into the writing process. Let me conjure a story before both our eyes.” Fascinating how these bare bones of a young woman's life assemble themselves into a tangible skeleton. A delicate double entendre, “Present from the Past” makes the reader feel awkward yet privileged to be part of so intimate a moment in a person's life, resulting in one of the most quietly powerfully, personal stories/bits of autobiography I've ever read. The umbrella is Ford recounting his mother's last days, but the rain is so much more.

While going from the quirkily realistic to the lightly unreal, “The Manticore Spell” is likewise a masterpiece of storytelling. Fantastical and nostalgic, bittersweet and mysterious, visceral and ruminative, it's all one could want in a story about a wizard’s apprentice in a kingdom with a manticore loose in its woods. It is Medieval fantasy without the stereotype, and significantly richer for it. A step outside his comfort zone that doesn’t end up feeling that way, “The Dismantled Invention of Fate” defies the idea of “predictable” space adventure. About an astronaut stranded on a planet, he falls in love with an alien, marries her, but is torn away—by what else, none other than fate. Fate going on to play a role in the conclusion, the story is dynamic yet perpetual. One of if not the least substantial story in the collection, “Fat One” is about a man who trades one bad habit for another, cigs for hot dogs, working out a solution with his son in the process.

Something of a precursor to Ford's novel The Shadow Year, “Whats Sure to Come” tells of a boy in the 50s whose grandmother is a fortuneteller with a little knack for luck, both good and bad. Like the novel, the people and domestic setting really come to life. “The Way He Does It” is a chinese, store bought cake: beautiful to look at, artfully crafted, but utterly lacking in substance. So goes the metaphor for this Houdini whose magic “lacks substance”. (I'm smiling writing those words; read for yourself.) If Dan Brown were a good writer, he could produce something like “The Scribble Mind”. The tale of a graduate art student who runs into a girl from his hometown on campus one day and strikes up a friendship that changes his life, things are slightly off kilter from the beginning, then go off the rails when an art exhibit displays a piece the girl remembers from many years before during her time as a preschool attendant. While this story wears the clothes of mystery/horror, the body beneath has flesh and blood.

Weird rooted in Native American-esque myth, “The Dreaming Wind” is not Ford's most creative piece, but does display the imagination which sets him apart from the crowd. It is the story of a small community visited by a magical wind once per year that turns everything into a visit by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A breathtaking piece of storytelling—like Alice in Wonderland for adults—the “House of Four Seasons” tells us a story, forwards and backwards, about... a man and his fellow guests? Patients? At a sanitorium? A hotel? A bizarre Dr Kellog-esque spa? Just read it, then read it again—it's that good. In the final story in the collection, “The Golden Dragon”, Ford tells another autobiographical-esque story about moving into a poor, New Jersey neighborhood and the colorful characters he meets there. Everyone battling their own demons, one in fact turns out to be a “dragon”. 

In the end, The Drowned Life may be Ford's best collection (though there is competition from his debut collection, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant). Containing a number of top notch stories, it is in the very least incredibly, delightfully, wonderfully varied. No story or motif repeats itself—anything but a one trick pony, most are written with complementary technique. “Present from the Past”, “The Manticore Spell”, and “In the House of Four Seasons” are all fine, almost transcendent pieces of writing. enjoyable Thus, while I've pondered the idea of Ford being an unheralded man of American letters, likely I'll save the verdict for another day. But the fact he is worthy of consideration alongside writers who do hold the title is a testament to how good this collection is.

The following are the sixteen stories contained in The Drowned Life

The Drowned Life

Ariadne's Mother

The Night Whiskey

A Few Things About Ants

Under the Bottom of the Lake

Present from the Past

The Manticore Spell

The Fat One

The Dismantled Invention of Fate

What's Sure to Come

The Way He Does It

The Scribble Mind

The Bedroom Light

In the House of Four Seasons

The Dreaming Wind

The Golden Dragon

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