Once Upon A Decade
by Clark Zlotchew

Comfort Publishing
2011
Paperback
First Collection Awards: Finalist, Next Generation Indie Book Awards 2011







"He turned his head to the left. The train was in sight, gleaming in the sun. It came from far-off places. It was shiny, beautiful, as it sped smoothly along the tracks, free as the birds overhead."


Reviewed by Emma Young

As the short quote from the book above highlights, this collection manages to evoke a stark and alive portrait of life and action. The narrative of each individual story draws you in and allows the reader to conjure in their mind an image of the setting and characters involved. It is this quality of Zlotchew’s writing which allows the collection to succeed in achieving what its subtitle suggests: Tales of the Fifties.

However, these are not happy, nostalgic or sentimental tales as perhaps one might expect. Zlotchew’s collection of stories raises issues stretching from racism and sexism though to the threat of terrorism and AIDS. In covering this vast landscape of issues and concerns that helped to shape a decade, and prevailed even beyond this time, this collection moves the reader from sympathy through to loathing, fear to hope and blends love and heartache a long the way. What makes this collection particularly interesting is the way that the author clearly blends his own experiences with those of his imagination as adventures at sea are inescapably bound up with Zlotchew’s career as a Naval Reserve whilst the others such as Witches Brew have a magical quality that seems to have leapt from the imagination on to the page and leaves the reader wanting more.

If I were to pick one story that stands out for me it would have to be Storm Warning. Positioned in the middle of this collection it is a story that’s form and content blend carefully to provoke the reader to reflect on issues of racism. However, the racist atmosphere in the era is not forced upon the reader. Instead, the story builds slowly and subtly and like the storm it reaches a climax before moving off again. The climax of racist violence acutely echoes the growing pressure of a weather storm so that the metaphor and connection is maintained from the opening title to the closing pages of the story. The concluding images of how:
the sky is clear blue, and the ocean is even bluer and sparkling and just as clam as a lake…and then I see that dirty-yellowish smudge no bigger than my thumbnail way off on the horizon and I get this really bad feeling in my gut, like something is going to happen, something terrible...
The story is torn open at the seams with this emotive and poignant ending and like other stories in the collection allows there to be a sense of blending and blurring which helps to define this collection as rooted in the zeitgeist of the 1950s epoch. Surrounded by much shorter stories such as Shame and Persuasion the balance of the collection is achieved overall by the careful placing of a variety of stories in this particular order, which like the sea itself helps perpetuate a certain movement within the work as a whole.

Overall, this is definitely worth a read for anybody who is interested in looking back on the 1950s to learn more or even for those who remember the events and themes that Zlotchew is discussing to pick it up this book and see how he takes real-life events and weaves stories around them.

 


Emma Young is a PhD student at the University of Leicester working on her thesis: Contemporary Women’s Writing and the Short Story Genre. Her work explores the implications of gender and genre by discussing the work of numerous contemporary British women authors including Ali Smith and Rose Tremain and considers the implications of new digital technology on the status and future of the short story.

Emma's other Short Reviews: Lorrie Moore "Like Life"

Gemma Seltzer "Speak to Strangers"

"Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 4"

Sara Levine "Short Dark Oracles"
                     
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Clark Zlotchew joined the U.S Naval Reserve at the age of 17 and since then has had a varied career including working in the manufacturing and educational sectors. Currently a Professor of Spanish and Spanish-American literature in New York, he has had fourteen books published in his field as well as a novel under a pseudonym.

Read an interview with Clark Zlotchew