Destiny News by Robert Fox. Illustrations by Judy Geichman. 96 pp. $4.00. Order from December Press, 4343 N. Clarendon, Chicago, Ill. 60613.
This collection of Bob Fox’s stories are described by Fox’s publisher, Curt Johnson, as “the most enlightening and enlightened surrealism I’ve read since Franz K.”
The first story in the collection, “The Apotheosis of Cat Man,” has some affinities with Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” The edge of reality is fuzzy, and one is not quite sure what is happening; is cat-man a man or a cat? He and cat-woman are very like man/woman meeting in a bar, but also very like cat/cat when they meet on the street. This may be an attempt to get viscerally closer to the animal in all of us, especially the sexual animal in man and woman, seen as feline.
The longest piece in the collection, “Destiny News,’’ is also a surreal piece. Fox describes here accurately and humorously what it is like to be young, male, white, recently married, trying to make good in the establishment job market (in this case, as a newspaper reporter) while flotsam and jetsam from our insane society keep washing in: the seductive psychiatrist who helps his wife break up his marriage, the father-in-law whose liberal position is only taken when it’s conversationally convenient (since the mural in the front hall of his building showing George Washington “patting a darkie’s head” embarrasses him, he goes to the trouble to go in the side entrance), and the crazed veteran back from Vietnam who buys a gun and shoots everyone in the gun shop except the narrator, to whom he then hands the gun and says: “Now, shoot me.”
It goes by fast, like a dream. If the dream is our common ground in grasping surreal experiences, then this story has that quality, of going by fast, as dreams do; of things that feel connected, but we don’t see how yet. Fox gives us a swift scenario of contemporary reality with this fast-moving “crazy” narrative technique.
My favorite story was “The Grandmother,” which goes very well into a hopelessly bedridden old woman’s mind. She listens ritually to the news — her one main connection to the world.
“ ‘You’re more up to date than I am,’ the doctor said.
“ ‘But how’s my heart?’ she asked.
“ ‘Your ticker’s got time left,’ he said. ‘And one more thing.’ He leaned close to her ear. ‘You’re the only one left on this floor with a head on her shoulders.’
“The doctor left and swept all the remaining energy and daylight in the world with him. She became aware of the steady stream of abuse from the women on her right . . . and the old woman across got the ward who was once again on the floor, swearing and shoving her bed, and struggling with the window.”
The doctor’s words ring louder as we finish the story with the grandmother, in her feebleness and loneliness, trying to keep her hold on sanity against the onslaught of her loony ward-mates.
I also enjoyed the last section, of Frito stories, which recreates the cultural tensions of the 60s. Frito, who might stand for one of those “children of the 60s” who matured with the Vietnam protests, is pitted in various stories against more typical small town inhabitants, who have no sympathy for the “long-hairs.” The Fat Man, whom Frito meets at the gas station, comments to him: “You need a haircut on your face.” Frito commenting on the Fat Man’s rendition of “Okie from Muscogie,” replies, “You got a nice voice.” Here, for me, the humor is easier, more relaxed, more successful.
Bob Fox’s stories are some of the best I’ve read coming out of the heart of the Midwest, speaking for an experience so familiar to those who have lived in its cities and little towns. At his best, I think he does one thing I ask of fiction: to root us in the experience, so it becomes our own.
O Rosie by Daniel Lusk. Illustrations by Paul Bradford. 151 pp. $5.00. Order from Carpenter Press, Rt. 4, Pomeroy, Ohio 45769.
O Rosie fuses the experience of two men: one father, one son. Both grew up in small Midwestern towns.
This is a novel consciously structured to reveal as much as possible about inherited guilt, about how a family’s fate can be passed along, generation to generation. The son finds himself following his father’s path, especially in his attitudes toward women and his own sexuality, far more than either of them intended. The experience is blurred and fused, successfully, I think, by telling the key and traumatic events of both lives, at once. I found myself often starting a paragraph over to make sure I had the right man: Issac son or Abraham father? I sensed that this fusion of experience and throwing of light both backwards and forwards was the most important goal to the novelist.
The book takes a close look at the poverty and value confusion which is at the roots of many people’s lives, whether we grew up poor in the first quarter or second quarter of this century, in the Midwest or elsewhere.
The poverty is so haunting, so terrible. I remembered when I was two and a half, my mother washed laundry for a family of four in a bucket and my father’s wages were barely enough to feed us, and not enough to pay the hospital bill when my sister was born. It reminded me: a lot of this country was poor before the end of World War II. There was the depression, but it was far more inclusive than that.
It also takes a look at another American confusion: love and loyalty. Both men feel this conflict. This guilt. Is enjoying sex wrong? Even, is sex wrong? But also, isn’t it wrong to die, trying to be responsible to a half-sick wife and too many children, all crowded into a one-room house? The father’s mistress in town becomes more understandable seen from the view inside that crowded, frantic house. The son’s wrench away from a wife who wanted him to be the preacher he had intended to be, not the man he was, is again made clear through the step-by-step revelation of what he suffered, and why.
I think Lusk’s ability to present his characters’ experience so that the reader struggles along with them and wracks his own conscience for answers is his chief contribution to literature.