Man Receives A Letter
 by Peter Gordon

Red Hen Press
2009, Paperback
First collection

Peter Gordon is a graduate of Yale whose short stories have appeared in Ploughshares, The New Yorker, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. His work has been anthologised, awarded a Pushcart Prize and cited in The Best American Short Stories series. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two sons.

Read an interview with Peter Gordon

"Here he was, practically an old man, on the threshold of his last phase, at the beginning of his mortal end, and somehow he was still in love with God… He loved the smell of candle wax. He loved the tart blood and the dry host. He loved the wind that blew through the congregation when the back doors were left open. How unremarkable he was! How dull! How typical!"

Reviewed by Sarah Hilary

At the end of Drive, my favourite story in this collection, Father Stanley McDonough tries to catch a glimpse of his face in a car mirror:
"He wanted to see himself, how he looked behind the wheel and in full command, but he couldn’t quite get it full and square. Too many moving shadows, too much reflected light."
This same trouble afflicts other characters in the collection, in fact it might be said to sum up the tension at the heart of each story, as the heroes struggle to make sense of their lives. Drive is told in the third person by a man who believes himself beyond the awful (literally "full of awe") earthly temptations that have transformed the life of his fellow priest, Father Carlton. The fallen priest bequeaths his fast car to hero, and we are left to wonder whether Father Stanley is poised to fall prey to the lure of this "divinely fast" car and its female passenger. We suspect not, from what we have learnt of Father Stanley, but Gordon – with real skill and delicacy of touch – allows us to imagine more than one ending for our soul-searching hero.

This same delicacy of touch characterises each of the stories in the collection. The narrator is often a faceless young man, telling us about his wife or his father, revealing a little of himself in the process. In Celia, this hero (Peter) is diminished by his dying father’s insistence that Peter died as a child, attempting to cross a river. This false memory is full of dramatic detail, compellingly told by Peter’s father. Peter is a shadowy presence in the story, despite his first person narrative, left wondering what became of the son his father loved:
"I think, what would he be like now? If I passed him on the street, would I even know it was him? What kind of face would he have, what kind of clothes? Would he be rich? Would he be happy? Would he find someone to love or spend his whole life looking in vain? If he had lived, I mean. If he had made it across that river."
The characters in these stories are always wondering at the lives they didn’t live, or might have lived, or may yet live. Always trying to get that glimpse in the mirror which tells the truth of who they are and where they’re headed.

Dreams and premonitions play a big part in more than one story, my favourite being Birds of Paradise, where the hero’s near-death experience aligns with his wife’s visitations by ghostly relatives. The story is told with dark humour, and pathos.

If the men in his stories are searching for self-enlightenment, Gordon’s heroines are running from premonitions or trying to fight fate. In Bridge of Sighs, the hero tells how his wife’s Aunt Eda, a bruja or Peruvian witch, predicts that her niece will marry not the man she loves but a stranger from abroad (the hero is an American). This prediction shapes their first meeting, but the story is shot through with the struggle between the young woman’s belief in her Aunt’s powers of prediction and her desire for another man.

In Photopia, the young wife loses her only photo of her father when she leaves Peru, and spends the story searching among her relations for a replacement photograph. The story leads us in an unexpected direction, towards a man who was the girl’s surrogate father in the days following his death. Her search is circular, self-defeating, but no less powerful for that.

My second favourite story, Stones, has a perfect ending, the echo of which can be heard almost from the first line. It’s the story of a father visiting his son’s college, and we sense it’s a last journey even before Gordon begins unravelling the father’s destructive history. Gordon leads us around the edges of the story’s heart, sometimes taking us closer, sometimes drawing back to give us a better perspective. It’s powerful, credible story-telling, woven from the raw stuff of relationships.

Lost is a strange story, appearing towards the end of the collection, telling of a makeshift army trying to navigate a hostile land. It reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a uniquely-American tale of unending war and weariness. Gordon, like McCarthy, offers no easy access to the reader; the best we can do is suspend judgement. It’s possible to imagine an optimistic ending, if you’re so inclined. But you can’t escape the feeling that this isn’t the only ending Gordon would write, if he was in the habit of "ending" his stories emphatically, which he isn’t.

It’s tempting to conclude from this collection that Peter Gordon doesn’t "do plot". But it would be more accurate to say he comes at story-telling from another angle, one which opens doors into lives, affording us glimpses but denying us the indulgence of thinking we can know for certain the fates of those we’re reading about. Some readers will find this frustrating. For me, it made the characters less knowable but more alive. I believed in these people, hoped and feared for them. And that’s what I want from a good story.

Sarah Hilary won the Sense Creative Award in 2010, and was a Fish prize-winner in 2008. Her fiction appears in The Fish Anthology, Smokelong Quarterly, The Best of Every Day Fiction I and II, and in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology,  MO: Crimes of Practice. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2009. A column about her mother, who was a child internee of the Japanese, was published in Foto8 Magazine and later in the Bristol Review of Books.

Sarah's other Short Reviews: Katherine Mansfield "The Collected Stories"   

Muriel Spark "The Complete Short Stories"   

"I.D. Crimes of Identity" anthology

Susan DiPlacido "American Cool" 

Sophie Hannah "The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets"

Benjamin Percy "Refresh, Refresh"

Chavisa Woods "Love Does Not Make me Gentle or Kind"

Jennifer Pelland "Unwelcome Bodies"

Laura Solomon "Alternative Medicine"

Patricia Highsmith "Nothing that Meets the Eye"

Grace Paley "Collected Stories"
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