Review: The Paper Life They Lead: Stories by Patrick Crerand

Patrick Crerand, The Paper Life They Lead: Stories, Arc Pair Press, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-9998453-0-1. $14.00

What is the cost of desire? Icarus is one of the most iconic and enduring Greek myths, and its shadow is cast with varying degrees of success over each of the seven stories which comprise this début collection. In Greek mythology, Icarus is the son of the master craftsman Daedalus, the creator of the labyrinth. Father and son attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings, Daedalus constructs from feathers and wax. Icarus ignores his father’s warnings of hubris and of complacency, asking that he neither fly too high nor too low, so that the sun’s heat would not melt the wings or the sea’s moisture clog them. The wax in his wings melts when he flies too lose to the sun, and he tumbles out of the sky and falls into the sea where he drowns. In ‘Pit-Day’, the opening story of this collection, the Icarus myth reappears quite literally as the chief protagonist, Captain Graves attempts to fly to the stars. There is a visual echo of Pieter Breugel the Elder’s painting  ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ in the following lines:

          …. “From the ground, they must have looked like a star falling all the way across the

                Ohio sky…..”

The eponymously named Penelope is the flight attendant in this story, rather than the wife of Odysseus, and valiantly attempts to open the cockpit door. Crerand opts for resolution in the form of a man in a ten gallon hat who brings the plane back on its proper course to Dayton. Like the majority of the stories in this collection, the author chooses to write from the third person point of view. One of the advantages of this approach is that it allows greater potential for tension, and this certainly worked in this story. It also allows a reader to float between multiple characters, which wasn’t needed here in quite the same way as in the subsequent story ‘The Glory of Keys’. As an ironic commentary on the hubris of our desires, this story has its merits, but I found it difficult to sympathetically engage with a car, albeit a Pontiac Sunfire.

The general vision of a writer is shaped by the reader’s feeling of optimism or pessimism or a combination of the two in reading the text. Each text we read presents us with an outlook on life, but in the times that we live in each text also reads us. If texts answer to any latent -isms, then the writer has to concede that readers may be drawn to the texts to have their prejudices confirmed. It was in this story that Crerand’s recurring breast motifs first make an appearance, and not in a positive and affirming way. The car takes Brian Sullivan’s place in Brookhaven High School, and the arc of the story addresses the over-reaching of desire. For the most part, I enjoyed the author’s thinly veiled attack on the American education system, but found phrases like ‘buxom brunette’ clichéd. To take another example of a sentence which lessens rather than adds:

           … “In November the football team fitted it with a blue and gold bra…”

The title of the story is taken from the car’s valedictory speech, and I would have loved to have heard some of it. Still, this story really takes off in the penultimate paragraphs, where the fate of the Pontiac Sunfire joins with the underbelly of American life;

         … “Powerless and distraught, Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire managed to roll down into

               the woods near a meth shack”….

The trope of a sentient car is one that has spawned a mega industry in America from the T.V. Series Knightrider to the Pixar Cars animated movies, and Crerand almost manages to create his own iconic brand, but not quite.

Where the author begins to soar and to surpass expectations is with the story from which the title of this collection was taken. Good fiction is often about how human beings react to challenge, about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The Pepperidge Farm founder Margaret Rudkin was one of the great business leaders of her time. It all began when she baked an all-natural stone ground whole wheat bread with vitamins and nutrients intact for her ailing youngest son. Pepperidge Farm boxes are quintessentially American and quintessentially not. This story takes place in one of these boxes, which is both quintessentially ordinary and quintessentially not. The opening paragraph creates a mood of ominous expectation.

        … “Morning on the Pepperidge Farm box is not all chocolate and cheese. The three of them-the

farmer, his wife and the boy-dot the whiteness like breadcrumbs on an apron. It is always cold and

always morning…”

The thwarted desire in this story stems not just from a plot device of a dead animal but also from the beguiling sweetness of the most deliciously decorated cookies ever to make it into a short story.

     … “She goes to the basement and brings back a cookie for the boy: a ginger snap in the shape of

a cathedral with four chocolate buttresses and windows of yellow apricot jam.”…..

There is a beautiful twist in this retelling of the Icarus myth that sees the father, the character most determined to resist desire, pay its cost with his life.

    … “It’s a paper life we live here now. There’s no beasts on our box. I seen the dark lines on its

edges. I’ll show you the lines and the other side where there ain’t nothing and we’ll throw that calf

over the edge. There ain’t no beast, just those lines. That’s it”…

One of the difficulties facing any writer who chooses desire as a theme is the tendency to veer toward melodrama. Desire is the central theme of melodrama films, and is Hollywood’s fairly consistent way of handling desire and subject identity. Plots which appeal to the heightened emotions of an audience show crises of human emotion. In Crerand’s ‘A Man of Vision’ a rather stock character ‘a man dressed in khaki’ guides prospective backers around an empty zoo pavilion. Empty that is except for a seven-toed sloth. There is of course no such animal, and most of the characters that people this story could have stepped out of a badly written nineteenth century novel. The description of the main bidder’s son who falls over the wall is a case in point

           … “The boy wore a gleaming white suit with gold piping around the hems and looked

like a midget admiral”…

Notwithstanding the archaic usage of  ‘midget’ the comparison to an admiral overeggs the pudding. There is even a baronet!  If this story is an attempt to comment on the rapacious desire of that most invasive of species: Homo Sapiens, then it fails miserably. Where it does somewhat succeed is in its depiction of the indifference of the assorted bidders towards the mother’s loss. In this instance, it is the boy’s mother who pays the cost of the desire that underpins all hubris. It is when Crerand uses the first person point of view that his technical skills excel. My favourite story in the whole collection is without a doubt ‘Semi-Love’. There are only three characters in this story, and one of them is an oriole with a weight problem, aptly named  Abel. What is particularly engaging about the characters is their singularity. Georgia drives trucks full of cows along the highways and byways of America, and is the child of a missionary. The couple court via CB. They could have fallen straight out of a Country and Western song. What saves this story from cliché is its stark honesty. There are some beautiful touches, particularly in the descriptions of the ennui of life in the Wisconsin Dells, the innards of cows and the quirky use of simile and metaphor. Here are some of my favourites:

         … “From above, the lake looked like a giant peanut”…

         … “He was like a hot water bottle with wings”…

                         and

         … “She was some kind of dream killer”….

Crerand’s endings are always good, but in ‘Semi-Love’ the single narrative thread of Georgia’s leave-taking is exquisitely and poignantly wrought. Although subplots traditionally have no place in a short story, there is a gentle transcendentalism in the depiction of the trusting nature of the cows as they are led to slaughter, and Georgia’s reaction to same, that suggests otherwise.

The nod to the Icarus myth in this story resides mainly in abandoned desire. The collection finishes with ’42nd & Lexington’ and ‘The Ear’. There is a move towards the surreal in both of these stories that suggests that Crerand is interested in hybrid forms. Desire embodies the breast in the former, and flaw in the latter. Neither worked for me. Nevertheless, Crerand is an accomplished short story writer, unafraid to enter difficult terrain and to ask questions we may not always wish answered. Published by Arc Pair Press. Go buy.

 

Deirdre Hines

 


 

You can buy The Paper Life They Lead: Stories here.

Deirdre Hines is a poet, playwright and fiction writer. Her first book of poems The Language of Coats ( New Island Books) includes poems which won the Listowel Poetry Collection 2011. Deirdre was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2010. New poems have appeared in e-zines and magazines in Ireland, America, and the U.K. Author of many plays, she remains the first woman to have received the Stewart Parker Award for Best New Play for Howling Moons, Silent Sons, produced by Fishamble Theatre Company. Other plays include Ghost Acreage at Vixen Time (Passion Machine Theatre Company), A Moving Destiny (Yew Theatre Company), Gaineamh (Verbal Arts Centre) and Golden Moon (Kilmacrennan National School) to name a few of her favourite. She is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, where she received a Double Honours Degree in English and Theatre Studies. She sits on the organisational committee of North West Words, and is one of the editors of their e-zine. For the past four years, she has been the Judge for the Annual Children’s Writing Competition. She worked as a community worker for eleven years, and is an experienced advocate for social justice.

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