Book Review

Start with names. The men: Frank Fawcett. Ronnie Czak. Ed Erdley. Doug Troup. Rob Gerlach. And the women: SueAnn Waltman. Janelle Fidler. Sharon. Susan. Joyce. Nadeen. Evocative names indicating characteristics of the people who own them: Salt of the earth. No bullshit. A little plain, maybe. Straight shooters.

The characters that make up Gary Fincke’s latest short story collection populate rural landscapes. These are simple people living small lives in small places, maneuvering through complicated situations just beyond their understanding. Usually these circumstances are initiated by a single, personal, random act of violence that shoots straight through the heart of the characters and story, to the reader—leaving character and reader alike to consider the implications and ultimate significance of the event.

The opening story is one of the strongest: “Where We Live Now,” a title whose double meaning should be recognized as both a specific geographic location and an emotional state or condition. Each section begins with the days of the week, with the story coming to encompass a full week and a day as the story progresses. Notice the snappy beginning as the ear responds to the rhythms of the words before the brain comprehends their meaning:


“Shut that thing up,” the prick kid says. He holds his phone at arm’s length like he’s taking a picture of himself and then slaps it back against his ear.

The loud baby and I are on the other side of the loud TV, way across the room from him.

The loud baby is laughing. I wait for him to finish his call, then I go Thelma and Louise on him. I owe somebody’s swear jar a fistful of quarters . . . I’m a regular; the prick kid is just passing through.

An ex-husband’s murder of his former wife during a Sunday morning church service, in cold blood, right in front of the congregation, leaves everyone in shock. The story’s female narrator, her husband, Edwin, and the residents of the town of Forestville (a “town full of guns” she says) are forced to ask themselves how well anyone really knows anyone else, and why the violence wasn’t predicted.

As the days pass, the development of the charges against the murderer are updated in the daily newspaper, then filtered through the narrator. She ruminates on her shared life with her husband, having met in elementary school and having never left the town in twenty-eight years: “It feels like we’ve lived here forever,” says Edwin. A well-tended, predictable life, upended in seconds, seems altered forever. “Logic doesn’t live here,” Edwin continues. “There aren’t any words for where we live now.” The shock waves impact the narrator, and ultimately find their way to her “loud baby” Lyssa, as the narrator struggles to find an appropriate way to respond.

The story ends with her returning to the scene of the bloodshed, another Sunday morning with Lyssa fussing and crying loudly—a different kind of disturbance. The pastor stops his sermon, so violent are the cries, the congregants displeased:

There are murmurs behind me. I reach into my purse and find the small, stuffed groundhog, but the loud baby turns her head as if she wants to see what all the whispers are about behind us. When she cries again, she could be telling all of them to shut up. But then I decide she is trying to get them all to cry and scream.

She and Lyssa arrive together, at last finding a meaningful response to the crime.

Violence takes many forms here. In “Freaks,” another favorite, it’s imaginary, a trick, though no less significant. It begins: “The summer I was about to turn fourteen my sister went headless.” What follows is a nostalgic, though painful recalling of that summer with his nearly ever-present father and almost always absent older sister Susan, as she runs off with Ronnie Czak who travels with the carnie freak show. Susan plays Justina, the Headless Girl, “Kept Alive through the Miracle of Science.”

But more is at stake. Their mother, we learn, died of cancer a few years before. The absent head serves as a symbol for Susan’s unknown future, as both her father and brother grow concerned for the only woman left in their lives. Constantly at odds with her dad and alternately intimate with and antagonizing of her brother, she returns home by story’s end, though all three are irrevocably changed. Her temporary absence too closely echoes the profound loss of their mother, who’s noticeably never spoken of.

In “Gettysburg,” violence is at play, too. It opens with a cartoon scene: the burst of a cannonball through the narrator’s living room wall. He can only watch it roll across the floor before the neighbor, Abner Kincaid, a Gettysburg reenactor (of course) enters through the front door, profusely apologizing. When a spot opens up on the Union side, Harold is offered the opportunity to get revenge for the mishap. Kincaid takes this game seriously, clarifying for Henry: “No wives. If you’re thinking about making this a little vacation, shake that shit out of your head. This is a real re-enactment.” Perhaps the best joke in the collection. Poor Kincaid plays dead at the end.

There is an apparent molestation and the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers (a form of molestation, I suppose) that drives “Now They’re All Strangers.” With slight narrative similarities to “Where We Live Now,” it depicts a husband and wife discussing aberrant acts. Nadeen tells Doug she thinks one of her students has been sexually molested by her mother’s boyfriend. What they ignore is the effect of the World Trade Center attack on their daughter, Andrea, who was working on the seventy-seventh floor of the south tower when the planes hit. Time has passed, but the pain and confusion remains:

Doug had thought that after the first anniversary of the attack, after the media dropped the subject, there would be a lessening of his wife’s anger. Andrea had problems, but she had lived, after all.

A year later, she still hasn’t started work. Traumatized to the point of refusing to use transportation of any kind, fearing public places that allow more than thirty people, certain a suicide bomber is in their midst, waiting, Andrea can’t shake the tragedy.

At Christmas, Doug and Nadeen visit Andrea and her boyfriend in New York City, hoping the season, and their visit, will lift their daughter’s spirits. Over dinner, apropos of nothing in particular, Andrea speaks:

“We watched the Macy’s parade on television. I thought there would be a bomb. All those children and all those cartoon balloons. What a mess it was going to be.” “But it turned out OK,” Doug said. “There wasn’t a bomb.” “Yes,” she said, and he felt a surge of hope. “They’re waiting until we feel good again . . . That’s what they do—wait until we think the world is a good place to be.”

Andrea never recovers. The wound endures.

That many of these stories are so strong is not surprising, considering Fincke’s achievements. A professor of English and creative writing at Susquehanna University since 1980, he is both prolific and acclaimed, publishing more than twenty-five books of short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. He has been acknowledged in the O. Henry Prize series, Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, and awarded the Pushcart Prize twice. And yet Fincke, like his characters, has somehow managed to remain off the radar—until now.


About the Reviewer

Ray Barker is an Archivist in the Special Collections department at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the central library in Washington, DC. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Music & Literature, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Full Stop, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Gulf Coast, 3:AM Magazine, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughter in Washington, DC.