Good book titles play with a reader’s expectations. A short story collection called The Surprising Place (University of Massachusetts Press, 197 pages) might seem to imply an emphasis on locale, a Winesburg, Ohio-ish evocation of a town and its inhabitants. And, in fact, this volume of stories takes its title from a former promotional slogan for Des Moines, Iowa, which provides the backdrop for most of the action. Still, what is “surprising” in Malinda McCollum’s excellent new book and winner of the Juniper Prize for fiction is not a matter of geography, in the prosaic sense. Rather, it concerns a different kind of space, a province of heart and mind. For lack of a better term, you could call it interiority. McCollum offers intensely observed portraits of her characters’ internal struggles which are often unsettling and full of contradiction.
Though not presented in a linear fashion, many of these dozen stories follow the adventures of a man named Green, from his adolescence to early adulthood to precarious middle age to his deathbed. Green’s name is apt, for at every age, he seems on the wrong end of the learning curve. In stories like “He Ain’t Jesus” and “Think Straight,” Green’s mishaps are largely self-inflicted, and he is the victim of his own schemes.
His wife Nora endures his philandering and other flaws but she is no longsuffering cliché. She inhabits a complicated mental world of her own, as revealed in the story entitled “Sharks.”
She’d been practicing self-hypnosis and meditation to make her head an empty place. To fill up her evenings she rented fitness videos and arty porn movies and carried out multi-course meals from a diner near her house. Weekends she ventured to downtown bars with other single teachers and a few times, on particularly tense, spotty nights, went home with a man she had insulted all evening and had sex with as much aggression as she could muster.
Further complicating the picture is Green’s brother, Roy, who is one of the most intriguing fictional characters I’ve encountered in years. Both a comic foil and a catalyst for bad things in Green’s life, Roy is a polio victim and conniver with a tendency to mention the unmentionable. In “Wonderland of Rocks,” Green and Nora bring Roy along on a camping trip to consume some magic mushrooms that Roy has procured from a guy at the motel. (This plan, to put it mildly, does not go well.) Dramatically speaking, Roy is a secondary player, not a lead role, but he pops up intermittently in The Surprising Place and, like Peter Lorre or Steve Buscemi in cinema, he’s a scene stealer. Here is Green’s perception of his brother in a moment of extreme exasperation:
Green glanced at him sharply. They had shared a bed for a while as kids, until Green got the idea that with their heads so close Roy could read his mind. Knowing it, each night he’d been flooded with grotesque thoughts he was sure his brother could detect. Then he began to wonder if his brother was actually projecting the thoughts into his brain. Before long he doubted his daytime mind too, scared that not everything in it was his.
Green tried again. “Can’t you talk to me straight for a minute?”
“I can’t.” His brother gave him half a grin. ‘I don’t want to say something untrue.”
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson advised, and while Roy’s version of truth is far from self-evident, he can always be counted on to provide a skew. The consumption of drugs also figures largely in McCollum’s stories. Whereas a more banal “Midwest realism” would emphasize the seasons and weather, the atmospheric pressure and plot impetus in The Surprising Place depends frequently on methamphetamine, which in the last generation has emerged as more representative of the Iowa experience than the State Fair. Nowadays tweakers outnumber 4-H kids, and addictions cause more mayhem than tornadoes. “The Fifth Wall” and “Good Monks” are harrowing explorations of some of the consequences.
The last part of the volume includes a story triptych entitled “Three Days Dirty,” which provides a younger point-of-view with a character named Severa, who previously appeared in a minor role in Nora’s life. Severa is a troubled but wily teenager, clever about getting out of trouble while seeking more trouble. At a woman’s shelter, she dismisses any advice as pointless platitude:
“You have to feel to be able to choose,” the woman said. ‘There has to be something you want.”
Severa considered. “I want to be able to breathe underwater.”
“I want a day of the week named after me.”
“You got it.”
“I want to kick the shit out of you.”
The woman smiled, a slow one that started in the center of her lips and moved out from there. “Go on,” she said finally. “Choose violence, choose shame. Chose bad often enough and one day you’ll realize it’s not working. You’ll choose different.”
“Come look at this world.” Severa swept the air with her fingers. “Notice that it’s disgusting. Dive to the bottom.” She took a step closer. “Stay with me. We’ll hang out.”
Severa does indeed dive to the bottom, but she does so on her own. Along the way she makes allusions to the Dhammapada and tries to work out her own idiosyncratic version of Buddhism. This Buddhist note was also sounded by Nora in “Sharks;” it is an element in The Surprising Place that I don’t fully grasp but perhaps McCollum’s stories, like those of George Saunders, offer additional layers of meaning when read in this light. In any event, “Three Days Dirty” is a powerful sequence that captures the fever pitch of teenage years, where everything is cranked up and experienced at a volume of 11.
The collection ends with a humorous and very satisfying coda, also called “The Surprising Place,” which returns the reader to Green, Nora and Roy in all their misfit glory. It’s a fitting conclusion to a book that is originally conceived, very well-written and, yes, surprising.
–Charles Holdefer, author of Dick Cheney in Shorts, 2017