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Nothing Like An Ocean

Jim Tomlinson

" First flakes of snow float through the headlight beams...They streak past the windows. They skim across the hood and shoot straight up the windshield, all fluffy like pillow down. The car's speed seems real now, surrounded, but hardly touched by glancing flakes of snow."

Reviewed by Majella Cullinane

Tomlinson's second collection follows on from Things Kept, Things Left Behind, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Kirkus Reviews called the book "a wonderful collection notable for its clean prose and tone of quiet, stubborn dignity". Although I haven't read Tomlinson's first collection, what stands out in this book of eleven stories is not only the author's honed writing style, but most particularly, the distinctive voice of his characters. 

In the title story, Nothing Like an Ocean, high-school Math teacher Alton Wood becomes isolated after the accidental loss of his young son. Wood finds it difficult to deal with emotion because essentially there is no logic to it, and as a result, he exists within a deeply restrained and ordered world which one can only suppose keeps him from falling apart. His sister is also coming apart because of her role in his son's death. When Wood receives an anonymous invitation to a church dance, he takes his sister along with him, and we see them make their first steps to confronting their grief and reaching out to others. It is a deeply moving, subtly-written story about loss. 

Angel, His Rabbit and Kyle McKnell, a first-person narrative, centres around Dempsie, her boyfriend Angel and an old friend of hers, Kyle, who lost his leg in the Iraqi conflict. It is the first of Tomlinson stories that suggests that often we are "better off forgetting" and that this can be the most cathartic thing to do. In the backdrop of the story is a rabbit Victor who becomes a quiet metaphor mirroring the helplessness and pain of Kyle. 

Singing Second Part is also another first- person narrative where the sense of place is immediately established by the dialectal style of the narrator. Set in the Sixties when young men are being drafted into the Vietnam war, it depicts the story of a young girl who on one particular journey discovers that appearances are not always what they might seem. 

The Persistence of Ice was my favourite story; a witty and amusing tale of a man scorned – and unusually, but successfully it uses the letter-form for a short story. The strong sense of voice and character of Titsworth, the sanctimonious former academic is beautifully portrayed in lines such as "between bosom-bobbing sobs, she screeched out her tale of woe." 

Overburden, a story about the destruction of an environment, and the powerlessness and inevitability of change, focuses on a couple who return to a place in Kentucky which was central to their relationship, only to find it unrecognisable. Again Tomlinson's view that we are better off not revisiting the past is particularly reticent in this story. However, although well-written, the story for me contained a little bit too much back story and jarred the fluidity of the moment, which might be considered crucial to the short story form. 

A Male Influence in the House starts with the story of Robert, a young boy who sniffs glue, and in an act of child-like revenge gets his own back on his uncle, the so-called male influence in the house. The story shifts between Robert and his mother Lynette, and it is this shift in point of view, and the abrupt ending, which for me, made the story somewhat unsatisfactory. This author's work evokes a very strong sense of place, and he is especially adept at distinctive, strongly-characterized first-person narratives.

Majella Cullinane is from Ireland and currently lives in New Zealand. She has an MLitt. in Creative Writing. Awards include a Sean Dunne Poetry prize, a Hennessy/Sunday Tribune Award for Emerging Poetry and an Irish Arts Council award. In 2008, she was short-listed for the Fish Short Story Prize. She's worked as a Writer- in-Residence in Scotland and Ireland, and has just had her first book of poetry accepted for publication.
Majella's other Short Reviews: Tim Jones "Transported"

Gerard Donovan "Young Irelanders"


PublisherUniversity Press of Kentucky

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?No

Author bio: Jim Tomlinson was born and raised in a small Illinois town. He lives now in rural Kentucky with his wife, fiber artist Gin Petty. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Pinch, Five Points, Bellevue Literary Review, Shenandoah, Sou'wester, New Stories from the South 2008, and elsewhere. Jim has been awarded a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. He has been a visiting writer at Tucson's Pima Writers Workshop, at Southern Illinois University's Devil's Kitchen Literary Festival, and most recently at Eastern Kentucky University's MFA Program.

Read an interview with Jim Tomlinson

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