by Frederic Tuten
all my years of my climbing and descending those steps I never had
the same count going up as I did down.
Reviewed by Scott Doyle
reviewer has a set of biases. And maybe those who are also writers
more so, bringing to their criticism their own creative
preoccupations. In my reviews, I often find myself focusing on
whether a story’s dramatic tension has been developed and pushed
sufficiently. But I had to toss aside my usual criteria as I took in
Frederic Tuten’s charming Self Portraits: Fictions, a
collection of stories loosely linked by character, place, and motif.
these stories, "plot" in the traditional sense is usually beside
the point. Sometimes the "action" consists of little more than a
couple talking over dinner or drinks. But such a modest dramatic
set-up serves as a springboard for the real action of the story: the
digressive play of memory, dream, and storytelling. Past and present
are conflated, as are dream and reality, fiction and autobiography.
In Self Portrait with Sicily, for example, a train ride
through Sicily morphs elegantly into the narrator’s childhood
memory of living with his Italian grandmother in the Bronx:
were moving so slowly that I could see my grandmother through our
kitchen window as she was spooning snails into a boiling kettle.”
moment the train is in Sicily, then it is in the Bronx, then both.
Here we have story less as narrative than as dreamscape and
thoughtscape. I say thoughtscape because extended meditations on
philosophy, and on art, painting and film especially, are integral to
the book. Its characters (most often a reoccurring couple who
sometimes seem to be the same, sometimes not) banter about art and
ideas in highly stylized dialogue such as this description of a
bullfight in which both matadors failed to dispatch their bulls:
"Those matadors were in a dream today that did not include us or
the bulls.” Another character speaks about traveling "to where
contraries finally meet and burst into dreams." This
kind of dialogue would be annoying were the author not so upfront and
consistent about its artifice, and were it not broken up with moments
of singular humor, such as a man clarifying to his wife a comment
about their wedding having been a large one:
a large wedding in the pejorative sense. Large, yes, but in a
polished way, like the Taj Mahal or a bowling ball.”
the dialogue will test readers who prefer realistic or gritty
This collection certainly isn’t for everyone. At first I thought
it might not be for me. But I was won over by, among other things, a
huge tenderness in the writing. This is a writer unafraid of large
emotion, and unapologetic about expressing it. That tenderness is
nowhere more evident than in the closing story, The Ship at
Anchor. It begins quietly with the narrator talking with his
aging mother and young son, but later morphs into a dream-like
encounter with a band of pirates who steal and trade souls. It’s a
moving meditation on mortality and the passage of time.
These stories are at times whimsical, with the occasional appearance
of talking animals; and, at times, Tuten flirts with a certain
preciousness. But the whimsy is balanced by touches of darkness.
The Park on Fire is particularly dark. It starts out as a
story about a man going on a walk in the park while his wife remains
in their hotel room reading. Gradually, the story and his walk grow
ominous. A poet is nearly beaten to death in the bushes. The sky
fills with planes, and later with crows, screeching and "leaving
the sky picked clean like a child’s skeleton." A group of
children playing early in the story later reappear as a small mob
holding aloft blood-soaked banners. It ends apocalyptically, with
dark skies and museums and libraries in flames.
There is also a deep, cumulative melancholy to this book. Departure
and loss weave in and out of this collection.
The stories are linked, loosely, but on many levels, and in a way
that gathers substance as the collection proceeds. A man, usually
Louie, and his wife/lover, usually Marie, appear in many of them. As
do various relatives and friends. Waiters figure centrally in
several. The stories return to locales such as Sicily and the Bronx,
and, even more so, Manhattan, in and around Tompkins Square Park.
There is an ongoing tension between wanderlust, and the contentment
offered by a few city blocks. Recurring motifs include the circus,
fire, clouds, painters (Poussin is an obvious favorite) and film. The
resonance these elements throw off is, again, cumulative, and helps
lend the book a dream-like and surreal spell.
What is perhaps most appealing about Self Portraits: Fictions
is the clear sense of Tuten enjoying himself. This is an author in
his 70s, who has traveled and lived in many countries, had a
productive career—and is now writing what he wants to write, how he
wants to write it, unapologetic about his affections and
preoccupations, and with no interest in catering to literary fashion.
As A.M. Homes says in her book jacket blurb, these stories are "at
once experimental and deeply old-fashioned." And they are very
much their own thing, utterly unlike anything I’ve read.
|Scott Doyle lives
in Los Angeles and writes mainly short fiction. In print he has
stories in New Madrid, River Oak Review, and Confrontation.
Online he has stories in 580 Split and Night Train.
He is at work on a novel-in-stories.