I have been a fan of Harper’s since I read his story, “The Bloated Woman” (which makes an encore appearance here) in Steve Berman’s excellent anthology The Touch of the Sea, and I’ve been looking forward to this collection for some time. My anticipation has been amply rewarded, for the nine stories here are all richly interesting and as varied as they are evocative.
Harper’s protagonists are mostly adrift, searching for direction or waiting for purpose, without the contented contemplation necessary for productive daydreaming. But their unmoored status is what gives these pieces direction. Once the landmark is in sight or the course set, the story ends. Thus, the reader is constantly looking for some resolution on the horizon, inducing a curiously languid atmosphere where decisions are moot, actions are unimportant, and finality is always a step beyond.
For example, Randal, the tow-truck driver/repo man in the first story, “Repossession” has just been thrown out of his brother’s house and is casting about for revenge on Amber, his brother’s girlfriend, who is responsible for his eviction. He and his work buddy are also looking for a legendary Mercedes belonging to a real estate salesman who has hitherto avoided apprehension. No sooner do they find it than it slips from their grasp again, and no sooner does Randal decide to exact his revenge by spitefully towing Amber’s car than his buddy calls him stupid for considering it, which is where the story ends.
Similarly, the protagonist of “Nature” also finds himself adrift, living with his cousin and working in her tattoo parlor in a strip mall no one visits anymore. To relieve their boredom, she and her partner the tattoo artist, practice body modification and “suspension” in a warehouse somewhere in the mall. Hooks are placed under their skin, and they are suspended in the air, presumably using their pain as fuel for contemplation. August decides he wants to try it, but backs out at the last minute, settling instead for a drunken evening of Risk at his cousin’s house and a visit to the neighbor’s pool. Floating in the water, he achieves the same psychic vantage point as those who were suspended from hooks, but again, once he decides to finish his classes at tech school and find a place of his own to live, the story ends. Far from being disorienting, this pattern works to sharpen the reader’s own sense of purpose by illustrating that decisions, however trivial or illusory, lead to the ending of one’s present circumstances, giving you permission to move on.
Two other high points in this collection should also be mentioned: “No More Heroes,” which sees a group of old gamer friends growing up and away from each other as well as the aforementioned “The Bloated Woman,” which involves the discovery of a corpse on the beach of a small fishing town and how it lingers in the mind and psyche of an aspiring novelist who is caring for one of his old professors, now experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Harper has crafted a wonderful world of characters who engage by disengaging, an effect as reassuring as it is liberating. His gifts are many, and the perceptive reader will find much to think about and ponder. Thoughtful and powerful, this is a must read for anyone interested in short fiction.
© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler