Why the Long Face?
 by Ron MacLean

Swank Books
2008, Paperback
First collection? Yes

Ron MacLean's fiction has appeared in GQ, Greensboro Review, Prism International, Night Train and other quarterlies. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a Pushcart Prize nominee, and author of the novel Blue Winnetka Skies.

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"I thought about running downstairs with a sheet, following under her, judging wind conditions, gauging the trajectory of a possible fall. But I couldn't make myself move from this place of coaching, coaxing, a place from which I imagined I could take action if needed. I was so close. But a part of me knew the futility. That she was beyond me. That if she truly lost her balance, I was helpless. I couldn't get there in time, even if I could walk on air."

Reviewed by Carol Reid

Ron MacLean's stories hover and dip through levels of reality. Many present a search for solace and faith, especially within the uncertain confines of family relationships. Others resist easy categorization and experiment with form and story structure.

The opening and closing stories deal with parental devotion and overwhelming anxiety. Mothers are cast in secondary roles, leaving the narrators - fathers of extraordinary daughters - struggling and baffled but deeply committed to their paternal responsibilities.

In The Aerialist, a widower contends with his fears for his daughter's safety and her fearlessness. His relationship with his deceased wife, with whom he continues to speak, fully aware that she is not there, is a wonderful aspect of this story. In the "real world" the family is haunted by the mental instability of his wife's brother and the possible consequences of the brother's developing relationship with five-year-old Katie, whose natural place in the world appears to be above it.

There's nothing in the book our paediatrician gave us about tightrope walking as a normal developmental phase. I checked. Sat in my den and pored over the text, searching for clues. I was willing to make a reach. It didn't have to specifically mention tightropes. I might have settled for any inclination toward a circus act. But nothing.

Here, and elsewhere, MacLean breaks a new path through familiar ground.

The concept of shared dreams takes on a literal and quite dark aspect in Symbiosis. Father and teenaged daughter juggle feelings of connection, violation and confusion arising from dream omens of injury and death. Anxiety escalates as dream details insinuate themselves into waking life. Here, again, the territory is recognisable but made to feel new, thanks to MacLean's gimlet eye for psychological truth.
He badgers here into telling him about the dream, after he learns she's had it again. Saturday morning, over oatmeal … He tells Emily he's had the same dream.
"There's a sense of water, right?"
"Yeah, but no actual water," she says. They explore the events. Other than the location, the dream is identical. Her face flushes.
"Don't do that," she says. "Don't copy me."
"What does that mean?" he says. A radiator hisses and clanks. The house is old, and slow to warm.
"Besides, I had it first." "You don't know that."
In terror/home, fragments and vignettes convey the feeling of things falling apart which follow disaster and habitual fear. The radio guy says the government's official reports on the events of September 11 is so huge that two dozen staff investigators will not be able to read it in their lifetime.The characters here all carry a chunk of this ponderous burden. None can accept the possibility of safety.

Consciousness swirls in circles for Ellen, the central character of Mile Marker 283. She appears to be living with some form of brain injury, narcolepsy, amnesia or a combo plate of all three. Her alternating confusion and lucidity is beautifully depicted through recurring images and variations of its themes.

Like the title of one of its oddest selections, each story in this collection follows its own Strange Trajectory, and each offers a winding path through the inexplicable - an unusual and refreshing journey.

Download an excerpt from this collection at Swank Books

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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