In an Uncharted Country
 by Clifford Garstang

Press 53
2009, Paperback
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 Creative Arts.

Read an interview with Clifford Garstang

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"I 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 situation,
"Pop 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 1978 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 balanced.

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.

Savage Source 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 obsession.
"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."

These are wonderful and authentic moments of insight where characters link emotion and geography in an attempt to communicate, to make sense of their experience:
"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).

    "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).
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 Melissa. Later on I thought that Garstang sometimes overstated the connections. I 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.

Read a story from this collection in the R.KV.R.Y Quarterly

Diane Becker is a writer and artist and deputy editor of The Short Review. Her short fiction and poetry can be found on 6S, The Pygmy Giant, in 6S Vol2 and the Goldfish Press Anthology, The World According to Goldfish Vol 1 & II

Diane's other Short Reviews: Susan Wicks "Roll Up for the Arabian Derby"
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