Pete Duval’s collection of short stories, The Deposition, is full of mysteries and oddities that enhance his writing and illustrate his great gifts as a storyteller. One of the specific gifts the author brings to this collection is a strange sense of the uncanny. Beneath the surface of Duval’s tales, dark and intriguing worlds are moving, feeding off the literal scenario enacted, and providing a religious subtext that is deftly drawn. Duval is not afraid to leave the reader guessing about the ultimate fate of his characters. He creates stories that get at the heart of the maddening uncertainty of human life.
The author sets the tone for his collection in the epigraph with a quote from a letter from Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Take God out of the dictionary, and you would have Him in the street.” God in the street is the guiding narrative thread in this collection. As soon as Duval’s characters begin defining their quasi-religious experiences with language, they become tangled in useless words.
This is seen clearly in “The Physics of Large Objects,” narrated by a man named Norman who may not be a man at all. He is oddly detached from his surroundings, and his encounters with reality leave us wondering just what level of existence Norman is encountering. Norman “hovers about his own lawn in the twilight with a sharp-edged spade, like some revenant from an excised chapter of Leviticus, until, at the merest premonition of subterranean stirring, he swoops down in theophanic fury to dismember those blind, flightless incubi.”
Other-worldly scenarios weave in and out of this collection. An “excised chapter of Leviticus” and “theophanic fury” point to the nexus of the realm of the divine and the human. How do they interact? How do we know where God begins and ends? This plays out in the next story, called “I, Budgie,” an explanatory monolog narrated by an escaped parakeet who hides among trees and watches his family from a God’s-eye view. He too is filled with a sense of an impending collision of the divine with the world, noting, “I, budgie, do not know how much longer I have. My heart beats so fast. (A day is a thousand years).” Here he paraphrases Psalm 90:4, “A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by. . .” The budgie is God’s proxy, as he explains: “Budgies are nothing if not watchers, note takers, stenographs for the End of Days.”
A sense of being perched on the end times is taken up fully in the story “The Deposition.” The main character, simply named V., is a lawyer who takes depositions and is soon exposed to the other, Christian meaning of the deposition—Jesus’s removal from the cross after his execution—when V. picks up a hitchhiking, bleeding priest. We are told the bleeding is “nothing dramatic, just an oozing, glistening patch of black on black”.
V. wants to engage the hitchhiking priest in theological discussion, but the priest is aggressively uninterested. When V. inquires about the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, the priest responds: “Blah. Blah. Blah.” The priest is irritated by V.’s doctrinal questions, and responds to end the conversation: “She’s in heaven. Her body is. Let’s leave it at that. Have a little faith, if not in the doctrine, then in the vestigial power of language to mean what is actually says.”
This idea of the “vestigial power of language” having potency, even if we no longer have faith in what language says about religion, is picked up again in “Common Area.” Once more a parrot is featured, a bird with the capacity to mimic human language, but not the competence to use it in any meaningful way.
In this story about communication and its discontents, an air traffic controller lives in a bed and breakfast in Florida, and he admires “Saint Francis of Assisi’s rapport with small birds and animals.” The air traffic controller is fascinated by a parrot in the hallway of his bed and breakfast. Rita has a wide range of sounds she can imitate, including “a land line telephone and the end-of-recess bell from the grammar school next door.” Despite the fact that “she issued what sounded like spoken English words. . .The air traffic controller knows better: what made a word a word wasn’t only a sound.”
Rita turns out to be far more unwieldy than the air traffic controller expects. After she takes a chunk out of his hand, he realizes that more is at work here than a simple human/animal encounter. As a creature with longevity, Rita “would grow strong on the memory of his blood. He’d live on, in that way.”
Here, a parrot is a gateway to a path to immortality.
In “Sinkhole,” Duval asks some of the most profound questions in this selection of stories: What are we, and how do we discover the answer to this question? Here, a nondenominational pastor is told by his parishioners that a local curio shop is selling a human fetus in a jar. The pastor does not know what to do, and he urges his Bible study participants “to seek scriptural justification for direct action regarding the fetus.” Eventually, the congregation goes to the curio shop to confront the owner. The fetus is in a jar partially lit by the sun. For the pastor, there is the “unavoidable impression regarding the skin of the fetus, of smooth unwholesomeness and soggy nubuck leather.”
As the story unfolds, we discover that the pastor’s apartment building is next to a fresh sinkhole and that the pastor is carrying some very nihilistic baggage. He muses that he had “long ago suspected that God was simply the name history had assigned to the utter strangeness of the world.”
This uncanny strangeness of the world is a sensation very akin to death for the pastor. When he is confronted by people needing help, he feels an inner struggle with his own spiritual impotence. This is couched in very dark terms, for “during the course of a day, he could not forget how dead he was.” This sense of deadness haunts him—he may be thinking about other things while pumping gas at the 7-Eleven, but not for long, as “the deadness rushes back.”
This man is not a great candidate to “rescue” a human fetus suspended in formaldehyde. He is radically estranged from God. One day, he sees a party in a parking lot and feels drawn to it. But the urge to be joyful, to spread his religious message among happy and receptive people, is muted because he “had no boss, no report-to but the Lord, who, it is widely known, had long ago adopted something of a hands-off managerial approach.”
A hairless cat also lives in the curio shop with the fetus in the jar. Both the fetus and the hairless cat are potent symbols for many of the underlying themes of this astonishing collection of stories: our utter nakedness, vulnerability, and lack of direction. In a world where God has adopted a hands-off managerial approach, what are we, and to what do we owe our allegiance?
In Duval’s stories, there is no simple answer to this profound question. His characters yearn for greater meaning, but do not have the linguistic or theological tools to anchor their lives in a God who may very well not exist. The primary way Duval’s characters find even the barest spiritual or religious sense is through encounters with animals—but that outlet is highly confusing. When people and animals meet, there is a great deal of projection of the human onto the animal. When we interact with a parrot, is this a proxy for God, or our own projection? Duval is a courageous enough writer to leave these disquieting questions unanswered. Like his characters, we have to struggle to find meaning in his words and our own lives as we jump into the mysteries of existence that surround us.
About the Reviewer
Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Trumansburg, New York with his wife and two children. His book of nonfiction prose, fiction, and poetry, The Torah Sutras, was published by Albion-Andalus Books in 2019.