Naming Ceremony – Chip Livingston (Lethe Press)

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I love stories and authors who walk between worlds, whether those worlds are cultural or split between the boundaries of fantasy and reality. Blurred lines and grays are always more interesting than clear divisions or blacks and whites, and reading fiction that muddies those waters is always time well spent for me. So, it’s no surprise that I very much enjoyed Chip Livingston’s Naming Ceremony, a collection of stories suffused by the Native American culture.

Some, though not all, of the stories are linked by a recurring cast of characters: Peter Strongbow, his HIV positive lover Elan, Peter’s sister Lana, and an assortment of Native American relatives and friends. They first show up in the title piece, “Naming Ceremony,” a subtle take on a ritualistic ceremony where Peter is given his tribal name, and finish up in the final story, “Ghost Dance.” In between, they dance, they love, they celebrate and grieve, their story arc briefly interrupted by Livingston’s other voices.

Those other voices are represented by a smaller story arc about a student traveling to New York City to be the caretaker of an older, established poet as well as some stray stories unrelated to either arc–the cruel reunion of “A Good Game If You Care Who’s Playing,” the brief portrait of NYC street people in “Jo-Jo’s Three Cents,” the cameo of two estranged brothers in “Night Swimming,” and the on-the-road teenage saga “Fire and Rain.”

As interesting as those are, I was more compelled by Peter and Elan’s stories, particularly the road trip in “Owls don’t have to mean death” and the foreboding “One Hundred Kisses” with its sharp imagery and atmosphere of dread. This storyline has a depth and a dimensionality that some other pieces here don’t have and, perhaps, is an indication that this is the world that Livingston himself most clearly identifies with. What really drew me back to the book, however, was a collection of short free-form verse modeled after Edgar Lee Masters’s  Spoon River Anthology called “Anthology of a Spoon River AIDS Walk.” I immediately started this one again after I finished it, and I had to read it a third time before I moved on. These fifty short pieces represent the thoughts and reasons of people participating in an AIDS walk for their friend and/or acquaintance Tim, who has succumbed to the disease. As varied and plainspokenly heartbreaking as these poems are, they really run the gamut of attitudes and experiences and are worth the price of the book alone. Even if you don’t really like poetry, this is worth an attempt.

Livingston is a fine writer with a gift for both narrative structures and non-narrative form, and I would love to see what he does with something longer. But for now, we have some wonderfully worthwhile short fiction while we wait.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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