Hello Walls
 by Jack Swenson

Balder Press (lulu.com)
2009, Paperback
First collection? No

Jack Swenson was born with a pencil in his hand. He has been scribbling one thing or another for many years. He lives
in Fremont, CA, where he also teaches a writing class at the local Senior Center. His age is a secret, but he is no spring chicken. His stories have appeared in many literary journals such as Wigleaf, Ghoti, Boston Literary Magazine, Camroc Press Review, Grey Sparrow, and Staccato. Many other story collections by Jack Swenson, including Tiny Bubbles and Just a Doll are available through lulu.com

Read an interview with Jack Swenson

"My wife went into our den, sat down, put her feet up, and hid behind the newspaper. I sat down on the couch across from her. You should quit, I said. If I could do it, so can you.
    She put down the newspaper and looked me in the eye. I'm a married woman, she said. I have no desire to live."

Reviewed by Carol Reid

As author Jack Swenson says in his introduction to Hello Walls, this is a big fat book of very short stories. Dipping into this collection is much like being slipped the key to an old friend's diary. Characters appear and re-appear, slightly altered, or repeat themselves in slightly altered circumstances. In this assemblage of events, a narrative accumulates rather than develops. Swenson's people stumble around and make do, make mistakes, and make a mess that takes a lifetime to set in order. Once in a while they are granted fleeting moments of serenity.

These stories are touchstones—pebbles tossed into a pond of shared experience. There is no substitute for the authenticity of a long and rowdy life recollected with clarity and compassion. Swenson is the kind of storyteller you want in the seat beside you on a long bus ride or with you for the long haul in the waiting room before you get the expected news.

A number of stories relate the misadventures of a group of drinking buddies and strike a perfect balance between an awareness of their weaknesses and absurdity, and appreciation of the deep bonds of comradeship.

From Ornithology:
"I sat down on one of the love seats flanking the fireplace and looked into the fire. I thought I saw my future there. Heat and light. Fame and fortune. Somebody behind me barked with laughter. When I was a kid I learned that you pay for your sins. Even if you were good, it didn't matter, because you were somehow responsible for things that went back generations. Evil deeds. Sins of omission or commission. My friend Harpo was passed out on the floor. Somebody had propped him up, put a bucket on his head, and with a wooden spoon was tapping out the beat of a jazz tune that was playing on the stereo."
Others deal with love and lust, marriage and separation. One of the least romantic and most memorable of these is Mona:
"She's young, I said weakly. Very, Doc said. That evening I picked Mona up at her parents' house and drove her to her dormitory at the state university in San Francisco, as I did every Sunday. I've been thinking, Mona said as she got out of the car. Maybe I'll have the baby after all. We could name it Tom, Jr. That would be nice, I said. Mona laughed. Just kidding, she said. As she walked away, she waved gaily and blew me a kiss."
Many of the most enjoyable and poignant pieces in this collection deal with the reality of marriage, an institution with which the narrator has certainly had a wealth of experience. From Second Thoughts,
"The day arrives. We do the deed. The wedding is in her sister's living room, and it is not a solemn affair. Just before I say 'I do,' my brother-in-law-to-be whispers something nasty into my ear, and I start laughing and can't stop. Then the real fun begins. We sneak off to our motel, and my bride spends the night in the bathroom. Then we drive to Minnesota to meet my parents, and I know that will be another disaster. They didn't want me to marry her in the first place. I told them that she's only half Jewish, that her mother is Catholic, but that just made it worse. My Midwest friends won't like her, either. They'll think she is a Goody Two Shoes, which she is. I think about leaving her at a truck stop somewhere in Utah, but I don't. I don't dare. She'd call her brothers, and they'd call somebody else, and I'd spend my honeymoon in a wheelchair."
And then there are the rehab stories, which thanks to this author's particular skill give a feeling of both light and weight.

From Resentments,
"A talk with a friend helped, too. His friend told him that resentments were like canceled checks. You weren't going to get your money back. Your money was in the other person's bank. In his mind's eye, he saw all his resentment fly out the window like a flock of crows. He told his sponsor about the miracle that forgiveness had worked in his life. 'Uh-huh,' his sponsor said. He told the new man to keep coming back".
There is nothing soft, showy or sugar-coated about these stories. Swenson's prose gets up in the morning, puts its trousers on one leg at a time and carries on. And the reader follows, trusting these stories to provide a path through the forest.

Read a story from this collection at Wigleaf

Carol Reid is an associate editor of Emprise Review.

Carol's other Short Reviews: "Crimini: The Bitter Lemon Book of Italian Crime Fiction"

"Passport to Crime: The Finest Mystery Stories from International Writers"

Richard Matheson "Button, Button: Uncanny Stories"

Andrew Porter "The Theory of Light and Matter"

Fran Friel "Mama's Boy and Other Dark Tales"

Kathy Page "As In Music"

Christopher Fowler "Old Devil Moon"

"Home of the Brave" edited by Jeffery Hess

Tom Lee "Greenfly"

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