Tailwinds Press, 2015
Perfect bound, 202 pp., $14
Review by Mary Lannon
Melissa Reddish works in both the realist and fabulist traditions in her revelatory and socially conscious collection of short stories, My Father Is an Angry Storm Cloud. It is a credit to Reddish’s skill that the collection includes equally amazing stories in both the fabulist and realist modes.
Realism and fabulism are two easily identifiable literary trends of recent years. On the one hand, we live in the shadow of the madness for Carver and Carveresque stories that took hold in the 1980s, held sway into the ‘90s, and continues on into the 21st century. Contemporary realism continues a tradition that stretches back to the 19th century and is, perhaps, most influenced by Hemingway. In this tradition, metaphors are made within the realist terrain of the story. A subset of this tradition, social realism, protests social conditions often through paying attention to telling details of lived injustice. On the other hand, we have what I will call a fabulist movement. Recent practitioners of these types of stories include Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, and Kelly Link, among others. Among their precursors would be Italo Calvino and Angela Carter, going back at least to Kafka. The metaphors here are not drawn from real life but, more clearly, metaphors. In both traditions, there is artifice, but in the realists, it is more hidden and for the fabulists, more apparent.
The story, “Girl Band,” in the social realist tradition, demonstrates Reddish’s mastery of the form. The making of metaphor out of the “real happenings” of the story is on display, as one band member’s aborted fetus becomes a metaphor for the lost dreams of all the girls in the band:
Sometimes though after we’ve run up the millionth can of chicken noodle soup or pair of acid wash jeans, we think about that kid, that little lump of cells that was almost a person. We wonder if it would have had a lazy eye or a lisp or been a real fucking rocker . . . We feel a stirring from someplace deep inside us and then get really angry and fist it down, way down deep where we can’t feel it anymore, and then turn up the Dead Kennedys until we can’t feel it anymore.
The social protest in this story includes showing the obstacles that girls with not a lot of prospects face in this world. Here is a sample passage that does this work:
We had one more show at a crummy little dive bar with Bud Light and Miller on tap that Jaime got us into by banging the owner—a balding motherfucker with a Depeche Mode shirt stretched across his gut—but we barely made it through one song before the ignorant rednecks were throwing ashtrays and beer bottles at us.
Also in the social realist tradition, the opening story, “Roadkill,” stayed with me long after its reading. The story alternates between a second-person point of view that describes a woman raging and creating roadkill, and a third-person view depicting the sources of the rage for the woman, Casey. Casey works a dead-end job and uses a crush on a guy to keep her going. The description of their sexual encounter and its pain and humiliation is difficult to forget:
She tries to tell herself she is excited; ever since she saw him she’s imagined the dark red cavern of his mouth, his hands touching the soft flesh of her stomach. Of course, she didn’t imagine him kneading her breasts quite so vigorously or rubbing himself against her leg. . . He then thrusts into her and the sex is just awful, like a jackhammer or a butcher trying to tenderize meat. . . Then he is hiking up his pants and giving her a seedy smile. “Well,” he says, zipping his fly, “back to the party.” He flings the door open and Casey scrambles to get her dress back on.
Another social realist story, “Grade A,” protests the lack of a social safety net by telling the story of two siblings who try to care for their ailing mother while trying to fulfill their own American Dreams. The details of the chicken plant, where the main character works, are visceral and attentive to the social class context:
I don’t really talk to the line workers. They’re all Mexican, and they don’t speak much English. Maybe some of them are some other nationality. Puerto Rican or something. I’m no expert. I just call them all Paco. Maybe that sounds racist. But I’d be surprised if they could tell the difference between us white guys. . . And then as if to illustrate my point, Paco #1 grabs a chicken that’s making a break for the wall and throws it at Paco #3. Paco #2 squeezes the chicken until a geyser of shit erupts from it.
Reddish’s skills enable her to avoid all the common pitfalls of the realist story: too many details that bore or derail the story; a tendency to be too narrowly focused, not showing characters in any or enough social context; a tilt toward polemic more than story; and/or not including enough art in the realism. Still, “A Haunting”—which tells of the difficulties a mother faces in trying to fully understand her children, her husband, and her neighbor—is less effective than Reddish’s other stories, in part because the central metaphor does not echo out into the larger world as strongly as in her best work.
Reddish is equally at home in the fabulist mode, which must employ all the skills of realism and add to it an ability to make the unreal believable. One of the best stories of the collection in this tradition is “Barley.” It takes up similar themes to “Roadkill” and “Girl Band.” Here, the main character, Rachel, finds a small man named Barley who touches only her thumb in a more satisfying way than any of her “regular-sized” lovers. The metaphor drawn from real-life is expertly done here: “(the men) love to watch themselves in the mirror beside her bed. Rachel knows they aren’t looking at her because their faces are always the same: carefully taut, fervent.” Here, also, the fabulist metaphor works well: “But Barley has touched more of her and with greater intensity than any of those men, and he has barely finished kneading her thumb.”
The title story, “My Father Is an Angry Storm Cloud,” told in the third-person in the fabulist tradition, is a brilliant example of the power of that storytelling mode. What other metaphors could possibly capture the way a difficult parent can haunt an adult child’s life?
She is tired of seeing her father. Yesterday she bit into an apple. A couple of days earlier her sink was clogged with beard hair. Last week she found a pair of his moccasin slippers against her bureau. The leather was worn to a fine layer. She pitched them in the dumpster outside and came back to find them peeking from underneath her bed.
The controlling metaphor of the story also illuminates the character’s emotional journey: the rain of the story comes from that angry storm cloud, and the daughter ultimately tries to escape it by letting the rain flood in and by building a raft to go looking for solid land.
“Lost” is also a strong fabulist story, telling of a woman who cannot remember where she’s been and who writes directions on her body, only to have them too easily wash off. Despite the utter strangeness of the metaphor, it allows Reddish to highlight everyday insights: “She’s come to realize that most people have an unshakeable view of the world, and she doesn’t fit within it. So now she just keeps it to herself.”
Fabulists have almost the same pitfalls to avoid as the realists, with the possible exception that the form does not easily lend itself to polemic. But, in addition, one of the chief dangers for fabulists is explained well by Margaret Atwood in her review of Calvino’s work:
It’s possible to get the sense you’re being toyed with, that Mr. Calvino is fiddling with you and doesn’t much care whether or not Rome is burning; that “reality” and “truth” are, for him, categories irrelevant to the hermetic world of art. There’s something to be said for this stance: why should a rose—or Isak Dinesen, for that matter—have to demonstrate social relevance? Still, if you go too far into the palace of artifice you can turn into a rococo clock, a fate Mr. Calvino has so far been adroit enough to avoid.
Once again, Reddish’s work is far from rococo clock terrain. Her stories always compel and offer insight. Still, her fabulist story, “Protest,” while chock full of provocative ideas, fails to follow up on some of its more interesting threads and lacks the apt ending that Reddish usually nails. “Baby Blues” and “Hunger,” while having intriguing concepts, don’t quite deliver fully realized emotional experiences. These fabulist stories veer, perhaps, too much into artifice, their metaphors at times apt but not with the many tendrils that nearly all of Reddish’s stories have no matter their tradition, a capacity to hold up a world that reveals our own.