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Down to a Sunless Sea

Mathias B. Freese

" I know one thing. Un-American as it is, I will not 'put this behind me'. It must be gone through, processed, and only then will the mist lift. I may then discern a path through the moor."

Reviewed by Carol  Reid

Down to a Sunless Sea is a collection of fifteen stories written over a span of thirty years, which to some extent explains the unevenness of the pieces assembled here. Freese's experiences as a teacher and psychotherapist provide much of the background material and give him insight into broken and struggling psyches. Many of these stories feel truncated; their characters are reduced to body parts and neurotic symptoms. The author presents damaged characters with clinical accuracy but chooses not to provide an underpinning of developed narrative. The reader feels disconnected from their pain. 

Freese is capable of evocative prose, as in this opening paragraph of Unanswerable

"When I was about five or six my father took the family in the station wagon to Coney Island for the day out, the blue collar man's respite. I smelled the franks at Nathan's, the heady, willowy, stuffy aroma of cotton candy being turned onto its paper cone, like wrapping up clouds on a stick, the French vanilla scent of ice cream custard. The sand and water came together to give off that dewy-sweet smell of ocean air salted just right, as if it too were a boardwalk confection. I recall old ladies changing into bathing suits below the boardwalk." 

The central event of this story, perhaps over-emphasized, is the narrator's perceived betrayal by his father, who offers to teach him to swim then without warning throws him into the water. In real life this is a common cruelty and a sometimes effective teaching method. Admittedly it is an almost bestial act, in which the alpha male of a family at once subjugates and educates, bringing a child to an awareness of his ability to swim. But the narrator never awakens to this consequence, remains stuck in what he describes as an "anti-American way of not moving on." Certainly one feels empathy for the child's trauma, but this sense of injury is overblown to the point where it becomes tedious. 

A cover blurb accurately describes these pieces as case studies. Several seem poised on the brink of becoming effective fiction but fail to make that leap. In I'll Make It I Think a young spastic man deals with his deformed body by isolating and naming its parts. His "bad hand" is called "Ralph" and seems to bear the brunt of his self-hatred. "Lon", his misshapen foot, is almost equally reviled. Many words are spent relating his sexual difficulties. The story ends with a mystifying fable the protagonist says he invented years before in which his body ends up in a trash compacter. In this fable he briefly mentions a character other than himself, "a Hungarian refugee from the "56 revolt" but immediately dismisses him as "not important to the story". These are potentially intriguing story elements but they remain disjointed and unexplored. The protagonist ends up as less than the sum of his parts.

In other pieces the prose style is repetitive, awkward and unnecessarily convoluted, as in this opening to the story, Down to A Sunless Sea:

"While a young child growing up on Brighton Beach, Adam would go shopping with his mother on Brighton Beach Avenue. On the el that ruled the streets, the trains chattered above and sparked toward Coney Island. As he walked he was stressed by a need to scratch the back of his right foot above the edge of the shoe. And to effect this without pausing to scratch it with his hand, he devised a backward gavotte, rubbing at the itching with the side welt of his Buster Brown shoes, first swinging to the right rear foot and then returning, in 4/4 time, to the left one. It was an odd dance, disturbing to him. It must have been bothersome to his mother, who held his hand as he slowed up to do his step. He could not recall his mother ever engaging him in any extended conversation that drew out or elicited an expression of what either she was feeling or what he was feeling, much less thinking. At nineteen his mother twistedly challenged him about a wet dream". 

Freese's protagonists are often maltreated or neglected children. The eponymous Herbie has his aspirations to shine shoes for money quashed by a brutal and egotistical father. In the titular story, Adam's psychological development is stunted by his "inconsonant" mother. The narrator of Billy's Mirrored Wall is spiritually impoverished by his mother's envy and insecurity.

The final story, Mortise and Tenon, was my favorite of the collection, probably because it felt more like a story than a dossier. It ends with an image of young Edward mentally rehearsing the stabbing of his stiff authoritarian mother with a letter opener. At last the author has made his point.

 Carol Reid is an amateur short story writer and an assistant fiction editor of Sotto Voce magazine.
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"


PublisherWheatmark Press

Publication Date: Nov 2007

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Awards: Allbooks Review Editor's Choice Award

Author bio: Mathias B. Freese is a teacher, psychotherapist and author of The I Tetralogy, (2005). Freese’s nonfiction articles have appeared in the New York Times, Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy, and Publishers Marketing Association Newsletter. In 2005, the Society of Southwestern Authors honored Mathias B. Freese with a first-place award for personal essay.

Read an interview with Mathias B. Freese

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