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Why the Devil Chose New England 
for His Work

Jason Brown


" the sweat glistened her face and neck and finally, late, a breeze did lift the curtains, the center of the white drapes rising into potbellies. As her bedroom door pulled open, the bellies rose up and lost their balance.  "

Reviewed by Melissa Lee-Houghton

Brown rewardingly uses an array of literary tropes to conjure the best and worst qualities in his characters and their fates. For many, Fate becomes a bleak passage in the storytelling of someone more fortunate, a survivor, an onlooker. Brown consistently refers to hands and upturned palms, working images of symbolic profundity, as though his characters are of the angelic orders, awaiting chance and the decision which will move them toward the path of the righteous or the decidedly crooked and hopeless. 

After reading the book I am still struck by the prevailing mood of the first story, She, which is possibly one of the more technically graceful and difficult pieces of the book. Tragedies which one feels are supposed to happen somehow hang in the balance of the life of a teenage girl, Brown’s own ‘Lolita,’ whose fate takes a turn into the hands of an unsuitable lover. I felt particularly haunted by the delicate handling of her first sexual encounter, which confronts our most pervasive human emotion: guilt. It leaves a harrowing reminder of the inbuilt sense of shame a human body can acquire through maltreatment. 

Hurtling through genders, revolving around the misfortunes of shaky adolescents we witness the changes which account for later contemplation and emotional damage. But on the surface, in utter elegance, the changes are awash with sublime landscape, still water (even with the possibility of corpses rotting below- the theme which tugs at us in The Lake.) Dense forestry and undisturbed snow, tree-culling and drowning, alongside guileless themes of recklessness, coercion, accidental death, assumed suicide, rumour, including some of the most possessive, lusty creatures I have read about, are commonplace. Characters like Andrew in the title story seem disturbed but idly accepting of their dissociation, their apathy. There is a sense in many of the stories that someone needs to be blamed, and whether the characters look inward or pass their guilt onto others, we are left asking ourselves whose fault it is that the sinister checkout clerk is left gasping beneath an icy lake; that the monstrous Eddie in the title story is left broken but not quite dead. 

In River Runner, the physical art of log-rolling takes on a violent, visceral edge, played out through snappy dialogue and hard poetic language. As the book draws to a close, the final story appears like an antidote to Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as a boy grapples with the minor seafaring of his father through the critical memory of his great-grandfather and discovers that the man in whose image he walks is not all he cracked up to be. 

Brown’s writing is cool and assured; he tempers what he wants the reader to know with an observed and psychologically aware omniscience. I can’t help but liken him to a tenfold more subtle and less populist Stephen King. Readers will require a degree of patience to allow some of the stories to elapse, with faltering perspectives and time-frames and the often laborious but charming open-ended narrative. A devil and an angel will reside in the conscience of anyone who reads these balanced yet unrelentingly turbulent stories.

Melissa Lee-Houghton is a writer of poetry, short fiction and reviews currently working on her first full collection of poems.

Melissa's other Short Reviews: Delmore Schwartz "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities"   

David Gaffney "Aromabingo" 


 

  
 













PublisherOpen City Books

Publication Date:2007

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?No

Author bio: Jason Brown grew up in Maine, where these stories are hauntingly set. Hailed by many as one of America’s current best short story writers, he has forwarded his success as a Wallace Stegner and a Truman Capote Fellow at Stanford by blanching his work with a liberal dose of that which most affects the human heart: Home. His first collection, Driving the Heart and Other Stories, was published in 1999.  

Read an interview with Jason Brown

If you liked this book you might also like....

"The New Granta Book of the American Short Story" edited by Richard Ford 

"American Gothic Tales" edited by Joyce Carol Oates 

"Selected Tales and Sketches" (The Best Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne) by N. Hawthorne 

"The Angel on the Roof" by Russell Banks

What other reviewers thought:

LA Times

Entertainment Weekly

Arizona Wildcat

SFBG

The Plain Dealer