Winner of the 2008 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, Jerry Gabriel’s debut collection, Drowned Boy, does for Moraine, Ohio, what Sherwood Anderson did for Winesburg nearly ninety years before. Once more, Ohio is imbued with a literary life, though this time, Winesburg’s George Willard isn’t the town’s moral center, but Moraine’s Nate Holland, instead.
Jerry Gabriel’s characters seem to spring from the cracks in the sidewalks, allowing the town’s young boys to break forth into manhood by way of their upsets on the baseball fields, basketball courts, and the unforgiving Midwestern lakes. Yet Nate Holland’s own personal trials aren’t charted through any single time period, but instead, through sixteen years of life, starting with his eight-year-old self and concluding far into the future. What we’re left with is a slice of a town continually tested; its prospects in the hands of its rocky, untamed youth. And while Nate Holland represents a single faction of this youth, Gabriel makes it quite clear that Nate Holland’s life is Moraine’s litmus test for the future.
Gabriel’s collection hinges on this tension between past and future, and while each story reveals additional glimpses into Moraine’s hardships, Nate Holland’s personal struggles provide for a far deeper exploration of place. In the opening story, “Boys’ Industrial School” eight-year-old Nate and his twelve-year-old brother, Donnie, are confronted with the choice of whether or not to aid and abet an escapee from the nearby boys’ school. The choice forces Donnie to question his past, while setting a precedent for his younger brother’s future. Likewise, “Marauders”—ostensibly, the story of a middle school basketball team’s past heroics—tests the town’s allegiance to its current sub-par team. And in the title story, “Drowned Boy,” past and future intersect once more when we’re given the alternating experiences of two acquaintances of Stevie Lowe, the boy who fell through the ice. While the characters—a senior in high school named Samantha, as well as a freshly graduated Nate Holland—take different paths to absorb their grief, their disparate trajectories eventually intersect, forcing them to arrive at the same point—the loneliest of roads—both literally and metaphorically.
But perhaps Gabriel’s finest work ignores this exploration of past and future. In “Slump,”—a shop teacher’s retelling of a student’s disintegrating baseball skills—we witness a boy’s decision to destroy his baseball career in order to focus on another path out of Moraine, through education. While considering the student’s choice, the shop teacher muses, “I saw, somehow, how my life had unfolded, how I had ended up here and not somewhere else. I was still young, still close enough to the beginning to remember what some of the other paths might have been, but far enough down one of those paths to not be able to turn back in any significant way….”
It is this realization of being caught in one’s own trappings that seems to permeate the older generation of characters throughout the book. Regretful adults populate Moraine’s past, while the town’s future relies on children soon to be strapped with similar burdens. The tests Nate Holland and the younger generation of characters endure are all meant to make them stronger, yet we fear the outcome will remain the same. In the collection’s introduction, Andrea Barrett writes that Gabriel’s stories explore boys “poised between one state and the next.” While true, it is never quite clear whether these boys have decided to plunge into adulthood or fight actively against it. For the reader, witnessing the characters’ occasional attempts at prolonging the inevitable is nearly as heartbreaking as the realization that these young men, like their fathers, will soon succumb to their own stagnation.
Gabriel hints that the fates of the boys of Moraine are predetermined, leading the reader to believe that the only escape is death by drowning or clawing for a future not dependent on yesterday’s homeruns and free throw shots. Near the end of the title story, Gabriel writes that Nate Holland’s “direction mattered less than the movement.” The same seems true of Gabriel’s stories; somehow, all the paths lead us directly back to Moraine. While the characters’ half-hearted attempts at escaping their past are admirable, it becomes difficult for us to root for young men whose futures stretch only as far as the county lines.
About the Reviewer
B. J. Hollars is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama, where he's served as nonfiction editor and assistant fiction editor for Black Warrior Review. He is also the editor of You Must Be This Tall To Ride (Writer's Digest Books, 2009) and has work published or forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Mid-American Review, Fugue, Faultline, the Southeast Review, Diagram, Hayden's Ferry Review, Puerto del Sol, and Hobart, among others.