by Annie Clarkson
The fourteen stories in Drift
and Swerve are nail-bitingly good. They have an edge, not
from being roughly written but because the subject matter goes beyond
safe. Characters struggle to connect, they take risks and face hard
consequences (because usually they have no choice). We read how hard it
is being a kid, how it feels to belong to dysfunctional families or at
the end of a relationship. There is dissatisfaction and emotional
paralysis as characters realise they are no longer in touch with other
people or themselves.
Ligon has a skill for writing
characters that are gutsy. They hang out in places like 'The Glass
Slipper' and 'The Pink Pussycat', and are ever so slightly out of
control. Their lives play out at an almost real-time pace so that, as
readers, we can feel all the awkwardness and tension they experience.
These stories are not ordinary. They expose. They confront.
Nikki is seventeen and lands in
Providence with $10 to her name and is 'pearl diving' in a lesbian
bistro called La Chatte du Maison. Henry is a kid whose brother died
inside his mother. He is always a German when the kids play war, and
gets in trouble for drawing a swastika on his spelling test. Hugh sets
up high command in a tree in his garden and gets his revenge on the
teenage vandals targeting his house.
Nikki stars in four stories in this
collection. We would never want to be Nikki. She has run away from a
terrible life at home with mum, ending up in Providence and later
Austin to live with bad men, transitory friends and too many drugs. In Providence she
leaves a relationship with a man almost as old as her mum, and stays
with a drug dealer, taking ex and robbing his drug money. In Dirty Boots (the
title of a Sonic Youth song) she is about to get thrown off an
education program for fucking another student. In Austin she stabs a
man who comes into her room, chokes and rapes her and oh my god she
wants revenge. In Orlando,
she is drunk on a greyhound bus between Providence and Austin.
Nikki's life is moshpits, violence,
sex and Percocets, but she is a teenager trying to get by at the same
time as understand what's happened in her life. She is a brilliant
character - brash, angry, wild, vulnerable and alone. It is difficult
not to like her. Ligon has given her a hard edge and a soundtrack of
Dinosaur Jr, The Sugarcubes and Patti Smith.
I want to stress that there is
nothing insubstantial about these stories. They are not concerned with
drugs and sex as primary material, these are just things that happen.
The real focus is the vulnerability of these characters, the way they
relate (or not) to others, the tensions and dysfunctions in their
relationships. In the title story, for instance, Ligon captures
perfectly the frayed intimacies of a family driving back a visit to
their dying grandma. We experience their in-jokes and boredom, their
squabbling and their fascination with a drunk driver in front of them.
It feels weirdly familiar, as though we are voyeur to something we have
ourselves experienced. Yet, there are these beautifully unique details,
such as the kids quietly throwing their shoes out of the car window.
The imagery and language are
Ligon's own. A man "whisper-spits" "I'm busy" to his wife, and car
tyres whip up "a roostertail of dust and gravel". And here we are, as
readers, ground into the dirt of a slightly sleazy but cool America
with all its beauty and crap all rolled into one.
Of course, the consequences in
these stories are both quiet and disturbing, the details graphic but
understated. There are infidelities, awful confessions at a party and
men obsessed with breasts or women in general, or just sex. It's as if
we are voyeurs to a series of slow-motion car crashes, staring from our
car windows desperate to see how badly people have been hurt.
Read a story
from this collection in the New England Review
Clarkson is a poet and short story writer
living in Manchester, UK. Her first chapbook of prose poems Winter
Hands was published by Shadow Train Books in 2007. She blogs at
2008 Autumn House Fiction Prize
bio: Samuel Ligon is the author of the novel, Safe in Heaven Dead
(HarperCollins). His stories have appeared in The Quarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review,
Orleans Review, Sleepingfish
and elsewhere. He teaches at East Washington University's Inland
Northwest Center for Writers, and is the editor of Willow Springs.
with Samuel Ligon
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