Book Review

In a moment when literary short fiction sometimes seems to be getting shorter and shorter, the stories in Jerry Gabriel’s second story collection, The Let Go, feel luxuriously long. At an average of forty small-type pages, these seven stories are more like short novellas. Instead of offering the reader a glimpse of a moment, Gabriel excavates it. He turns the moment around, letting us look at it from all sides, revealing both the universal and the particular, the global and the local. These stories feel organic, alive, and expansive. There is a distinctly unrushed quality to them, and one gets the impression that the author is simply and faithfully following his characters around—at a crucial juncture in each of their lives—listening to the exact timbre of their voices, the longing of their hearts, and reporting back to the reader.

The characters in these stories are poachers, temps, vets, scientists, cancer survivors, English tutors, and unwitting factory owners. The stories take place in Ohio, though the characters are all affected in one way or another by the larger political and economic climate. Many of these characters hover on the periphery of a home and a sense of belonging. They take great risks and put themselves in harm’s way, so as to experience just a moment of real connection.

In “The Visitors,” the first story of the collection, a family harbors fugitives in the back of their farmhouse during the Vietnam War. The story is told from the retrospective point of view of the daughter, Camille. In addition to providing a safe haven for political dissidents, Camille’s father poaches pelts from his neighbors, and he brings Camille along with him as he collects from his traps. These actions put Camille in potentially dangerous situations—one that does, indeed, become urgently, physically dangerous—yet her father’s tenderness toward her belies a deep paternal love. In this story, as with most of the stories in this collection, the local, private drama is played against larger concerns. The work Camille’s father does for the underground network is generous and admirable, at least to a certain segment of the population, and yet he puts his family, and specifically Camille, in danger. Even this danger, however, is softened by the bond the two have and the concern with which Camille’s father addresses her welfare. This creates a friction that makes the characters’ choices even more urgent.

In “Above the Factory,” arguably the funniest story of the collection, a couple moves from a western city to a quaint Ohio town, buys a country home, and discovers, only after having moved in, that there is a working factory in the basement. This story has a restrained humor that balances the real and surreal:

It was so absurd on one level; yet, already it was becoming a sort of natural thing, a bizarre fact of being alive not so different from other bizarre things people did, like having one’s teeth cleaned or worshipping a god or drinking whiskey until one can no longer stand. Being alive was itself a bizarre business, he reasoned, and as rational as we attempted to be, we participated in all sorts of strange customs and behaviors.

Once you think you know where this story is going, it turns in an unexpected direction, as the point of view begins to alternate between the couple that just bought the house, Sharon and Nicholas, and a man who works with Nicholas in the city. As the man becomes obsessed with Nicholas, because, “no one walks around this job with so much happiness in his heart,” Gabriel is able to further excavate the moment and explore themes as various—as global and local, universal and particular—as the inescapable machine of capitalism and to what extremes people will go in their quest to be happy.

Though all these stories physically take place in Ohio, their specific cultural moment reverberates through the narrative and the characters’ emotional landscape. War, communism, terrorism, and financial collapse shape characters engaged in their own private disasters. In “Dishonor,” Phillip Dante has been dishonorably discharged from the army during Desert Storm for accosting a Saudi woman in the street. As he attempts to put some kind of life together back home in Ohio, a latent violence is laced through with boredom and self-loathing, echoing to some extent the nature of Desert Storm, the ambivalence and frustration of the moment.

Many of these stories explore familial relationships, fatherhood in particular. Often these fathers—because they are human, because they are flawed—make mistakes. In the concluding story, “The Defense,” however, the narrator, Turner, seems to be a different kind of father. Turner travels to Columbus, Ohio, to support his sister in her delayed thesis defense—she had dropped out of school just before defending a decade earlier because she got pregnant by her advisor. The narrative reveals that Turner has recently battled prostate cancer, presumably coming out the other side, though this matter is left uncertain. Though this story deals with the fight for survival and the precariousness of life, it is tender and hopeful without sliding into unearned sentiment. The relationship between Turner and his son, Brian, is interesting and complex, but also heartrendingly sweet:

Oh, Brian, he thought. The living of life in the moment came so much more naturally to a young man; to someone like Turner, more than halfway down the path, his son’s mode sometimes seemed rooted in a quaint and naïve sanguinity about what life could offer you. But then, he could not lie to himself about the sheer force of his son’s will in keeping him buoyant this past year. He could not discount the power of his son’s ethos. Perhaps life would erode it, perhaps not. But for the moment, it was the greatest force he knew.

There are three stories in the middle of the collection, all with young male narrators, that feel a little too similar, but even in these stories, there is something that surprises—twin sisters that speak a made-up language and call in a bomb threat to their elementary school, for example.

The title of the collection refers to the recession that directly affects several of these characters—characters out of a job or somehow floundering in a failing economy—and bubbles under the rest, but “The Let Go” could also mean that moment of release that comes when you have finally decided to surrender, to stop struggling—whether into love or darkness—and are completely opening yourself to what comes next. Ultimately, the stories in this collection provide more than a glimpse into what happens when people push past what they know for sure and take a plunge, for better or worse, into the deep unknown. In the capable hands of Gabriel, I, for one, am ready to follow them there.

About the Reviewer

Molly Reid’s stories have recently appeared on NPR and in the journals TriQuarterly, the Collagist, Redivider, and Indiana Review, among others. Her story “Happy You’re Here” was awarded first place in the Pinch’s 2015 literary contest. She is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.