Precarious: Stories of
Love, Sex and Misunderstanding
by Al Riske
Awards: Pray for Rain, winner, 2008 Blue Mesa Review fiction prize.
Al Riske was born in Shelton, Washington,
and earned a degree in communications from Linfield College in Oregon.
He has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, copywriter, and
ghostwriter. His short stories have appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal, Hobart,
Pindelyboz, Switchback, Word Riot, and Blue Mesa Review,
where his story Pray for Rain won the review's 2008 fiction prize. He
now lives in California with his wife, Joanne, and their dog, Bodie. He
is currently working on a novel.
with Al Riske
"The desert is full of
things you can't hold on to – light and heat and sand that slips
through your fingers like friendships you once had. But if you're
looking for a sense of permanence, the desert is the place to go. I
guess that's why I'm here."
Reviewed by A.J. Kirby
At times, reading like Al Riske's new Precarious: Stories of Love, Sex and Misunderstanding
is like listening to a late-stage Johnny Cash interpretation of Paul
Simon's lyrics. As a whole, they are a kind of double-vision,
over-the-shoulder glance at the crossroads moments in people's lives.
Simultaneously, Riske's voice manages to capture the gravelly
knowingness of an old timer whose road has already been walked, and a
youngster who is suffering the desires and confusion inherent in the
transition to adulthood for the very first time.
The fifteen stories all concern memory, and the way memories
shape our identities. Many of the stories contain a yearning to go
back, to revisit the moment of change in a person's (usually a man's)
life; to see whether life could have been different had a different
choice been made. Whether the story concerns the long hot summer of
sexual awakening in California, the stumbling discovery of someone
else's memories after an eye transplant or the longing to escape from a
small town, there is always a choice. They are stories in which the
pull of family responsibilities, religion, correct behaviour, and
desire crash together, leaving the characters striving to hold on to
their life-raft, their sense of identity. Often their choices are a
matter of nature or nurture, but they are never fully their own.
And yet there is always the sense of what if?
for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the
things we did not do that is inconsolable". So said Sydney Smith, the
nineteenth century English clergyman and essayist. And here it is often
in the silences, the things which are left unsaid, or the
misunderstandings that the character's fate is thrust upon them; they
are fated to always look back.
Sydney Smith could well have been
a Riske hero with such sensibilities. Indeed, the lead character in two
of the outstanding stories of the collection, we learn, have studied
journalism and religion. In the Blue Mesa Review fiction prize-winning Pray for Rain,
Keith returns to the small town in which he was brought up after
finishing his studies and failing to find a job. Here, Riske writes
with the quiet intensity of John Updike about small town America; he
draws us into a stagnant world of gossip and backstabbing; a world
Keith yearns to escape from but can't quite find the will to do so. The
conflict that takes place within Keith is a mirror of the external
conflict, but it is also a result of his education. While journalism
tells him it is all about facts, reportage and keeping an open mind,
religion gives him that desire for belonging, for the mystical, for
something more. The story turns on the ground that lies between the
two; when facts can become twisted and misunderstood, and when rules
are imposed on the mystic. As Keith discovers:
"The thing I was
just figuring out about small towns – I'm a slow learner – is that
sooner or later everyone knows why you quit your church and who you've
been seeing."In Precarious,
Casey has also studied religion and journalism, and again finds it hard
to reconcile the two. Older than Keith, he is married and has a job,
but everyone keeps telling him that his life is somehow empty because
he doesn't engage in the Bacchanalian 1960s-style free love as they all
do. Turning forty and meeting a sexy new work colleague is his crux
moment. Should he submit to life in full; the kind of life which is so
rich, so free he can hear its "heart beat from half a mile away" or
should he remain loyal to his wife, to his own life which others see as
amusingly dull? He "imagines a tender kiss on strange lips, a tight
embrace with an unfamiliar body, torn clothes and a rumpled bed." But
then admits that after "would come the slow, inexorable dissolution of
his marriage – the heartbreak and the sadness that would linger
forever." Instead of living by fact and by action, he chooses to live
in his imagination, and somehow, it is a happier choice.
In all the stories, the transitional moments are hard to grasp at the time they happen. Riske writes beautifully about this in Hold On:
desert is full of things you can't hold on to – light and heat and sand
that slips through your fingers like friendships you once had. But if
you're looking for a sense of permanence, the desert is the place to
go. I guess that's why I'm here."He's also unexpectedly funny at times. Take this example in Pray for Rain:
far do you think a Christian should go on a date?' one of them asked
me. 'Try to stay within a fifteen mile radius,' I said." And then
there's the sense of looming menace in Dance Naked, which reads almost like the Jodie Foster film, The Accused, only with a twist.
Pray for Rain, Precarious and the artful, very visual Sleeping with Smiley are by far the strongest of the stories in the collection, but some of the shorter pieces shine through too, Skittish in particular, and if only for this mournful passage:
spend my days tearing the covers off paperbacks and mailing them to the
various publishers. Just the covers. Saves on postage. The depressing
part is that I'm left with all these faceless books that have to be
destroyed. It's against the law to give them to anyone, and who would
want them? I mean, technically, you should still be able to read them,
no problem, but I've tried and it's no good. Like talking to someone
who has no face."The only weak links gather towards the end of the collection: Taken, Just Admit It, and Your Eyes Only all seem rather like space-fillers. Your Eyes Only
is a particularly strange choice to end the book, leaving the reader
with a jarring off-note after the haunting melodies of the earlier
stories, reading, as it does like a wholly unholy cross between the
horror movie The Eye and Some Like It Hot.
But these minor irritations aside, Precarious
is a brave, wholehearted first collection, full of wit and wisdom. It
has a gleam in its eye and often, a bulge in its pants. It's about
masculinity, memory and identity. It's about love and sex and
misunderstanding. It's about survival of the fittest, but also about
survival of the human spirit despite our capacity to over-analyse. It's
about remembering those moments when we were really alive -
remember the feel of my oars catching the water in time with Curt's.
The muscles don't forget. I can feel the strain even now in my legs and
lower back, in my shoulders and in my arms. I can hear the rhythm of
our seats sliding up and back in Mr Alt's racing shell.' (Sleeping with
Smiley) – and it's about doing the right thing. Things that 'cost us
And it is about living with it.