In an Uncharted Country
by Clifford Garstang
First collection? Yes
Clifford Garstang received an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte in 2003.
His work appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, The
Ledge, The Baltimore Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Potomac Review
and elsewhere. He won the 2006 Confluence Fiction Prize and the 2007
GSU Review Fiction Prize and is a Fellow of the Virginia Center for the
with Clifford Garstang
Love the review? Disagree violently? Come rant and rave in our
love racing through the woods," he said. "It's like being on the ship,
crashing through the ocean at night. Only good thing about the Navy.
Not free, but free. Know what I mean?" He switched off the lights, and
still they hurtled forward into the pitch black, on an invisible road."
Reviewed by Diane Becker
I read the first story in Cliff Garstang’s collection Flood 1978
in December last year. It resonated with me so loudly that for several
weeks I couldn’t read on. The story echoed events that were happening
not far away in Cockermouth, Cumbria where, during a winter storm, a
policeman who was trying to prevent traffic from crossing a bridge, was
swept into the river and lost when the bridge collapsed. A couple of
days later I watched a video news report of a car crossing another
bridge in the area that was also close to collapse and I could imagine
the characters in Flood,
Pop and his son (the narrator), risking their lives in a similar
slipped the truck into gear and gunned forward, smashed that barricade,
and we about flew through the water on that bridge. I don’t think we
could’ve stopped even if Pop wanted to, which he surely did not."
"Each story" (says the blurb by Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge) "takes us into an
area – emotional and geographic – that we may not
have been before." In Flood
the violent weather counterpoints unspoken emotions. The narrative,
like a river in flood, weaves between past and present replayed and
playing out in the memory/consciousness of the narrator - the
metaphorical bridge between past and present - and it is perfectly
Reading Saving Melissa
(the second story in the collection) is like travelling in the back
seat of a car with a mad woman as she (Melissa’s "mommy") snatches her
young daughter from the steps of the porch where she lives with her
father and stepmother. The story is narrated in the first person and
from the beginning, the reader is complicit with the main character’s
thoughts and actions, as we share a journey towards the (metaphorical)
cliff edge. The POV challenges the reader to stay with this troubled
character, to suspend judgement until we are confronted with flip side
of the story in Savage
Source later in the collection.
is Melissa’s story. Melissa now 18 has changed her name to Tina.
Without spoiling the story, which has a certain inevitability yet
strung out and unexpected twist at the end, we follow Tina’s search for
a way out of her "humdrum" life. In Tina’s fantasy world Ben, who works
in the local coffee shop, becomes the unreasoned focus of her
"Mom says it’s destiny." Not that Tina ever listened to her
mother, or even saw her much. Her father didn’t approve and kept a
close watch, which is why she had to get out of his house. "She said
she could see it in my palm, a marked man in my future. And sure enough
he’s got this sweet snake tattoo on his arm."
Themes of fantasy
versus reality, escape, loss, emotional undercurrents and conflict
emerge and recur throughout the collection. The Nymph and the Woodsman
is a modern fable in which a Vietnam veteran unable to come to terms
with his experience, falls apart when his family leave him.
In Hand Painted Angel
a family focuses on tradition to help them cope with change and loss,
"Everything feels right, but just on the edge of a breakdown,
like a knot that’s about to come untied. We can keep going for now, but
this might be the end. That knot’s not going to hold forever."
are wonderful and authentic moments of insight where characters link
emotion and geography in an attempt to communicate, to make sense of
"It looks to Albert as if the barn had been
there almost as long as the old man, maybe longer – they both leaned to
one side like they were on their way downhill." (Heading for Home).
The structure of this collection, linked stories which culminate with
all characters making an appearance in the final story Red Peony,
which is set during 4th July celebrations - adds a time/space dimension
to both the setting, the fictional Virginia town,
and the characters. For me this approach is most successful early on in
the collection when, a few paragraphs into Savage Source, I "twigged" that the
girl with the "pink hair" was the now grown-up
daughter in Saving
Later on I thought that Garstang sometimes overstated the connections.
found myself saying, yes, I know who you mean, I don’t need their back
story. But this was a minor blemish in an otherwise honest, colourful
portrait of the underbelly of small town America. Garstang is an
authentic, sometimes brilliant story teller and In an Uncharted Country
is a fabulous debut collection.
"Nobody tells you how to make it, Brother … There ain’t no road maps."
"I don’t need a map Tony. All’s I want is a sign. Just a little sign. (In an Uncharted Country).