By John Bensko
(Graywolf Press, 224 pp., $15)
The author reads 1 p.m.
May 15 at Rhino Booksellers, 4006 Granny White Pike
Short stories are often maligned as novels that never grew up. When characters lack depth or plot is thin, this theory goes, novelists simply bail out after a few pages, andvoila!a short story is born. But for John Bensko, an Alabaman who now directs the creative writing program at the University of Memphis, short stories aren't truncated versions of novels at all, but more like longer, more textured versions of poems. In fact, the form allows him to expand on what he does best as a poet: present an economical narrative peopled with wonderfully strange, humanly flawed characters.
Bensko's brilliant debut collection of stories, Sea Dogs, is about pirates. But in Bensko's world, pirates are not the swashbuckling scoundrels of old, infamous for eyepatches, black teeth and deceit. Instead, they are housewives, motel clerks and fishermen, assorted lovers and workers, old men with little hope and young women with hope to spare. "A pirate has a simple life," says Morales, the narrator of the title story. "We love the night. The stars above guide our way. The rush of waters against the bow is like the sound of cars on the wet street. The stealing, the ransom, the mayhem, those are just excuses to be on the open sea. We long to catch a glimmer of a distant ship, to make the whispered rounds waking our mates for battle. Along alleyways, by garbage cans, we watch the deep brick sides of buildings with their windows lighted far too late like moons, and we imagine you inside."
From the coasts of Florida and the Caribbean to the heart of New York City, Bensko's pirates come vividly to life, though some aren't yet aware of their outlaw status. In "Painted Animals," the opening story, a young couple moves from Michigan to begin a new life in Florida. They rent a house in which one bedroom wall is decorated with alligators, turtles and fish originally painted to delight the children of a neighbor who once lived there. The neighbor's children have long since drowned in the lake down the road, and in deference to that neighbor, Eveline, all previous renters have left the murals intact. But Janice, who has frustrated her husband by not wanting children, defiantly paints over the animals. The women's lives then converge, Eveline trying to protect the memory of her children and Janice trying to protect her independence. Though each woman's obsession acts counter to the other's, they mirror each other in the end: "You're just like me," Eveline tells Janice. "We can't help it when we're desperate." That recognition of desperation is the first step in a pirate's life.
Throughout this collection filled with characters who sometimes tragically and sometimes comically struggle to emerge from the enclosed environments they find themselves in, Bensko is remarkably lucid. He perceives potential in even the most claustrophobic surroundings: Anesthetized butterflies pinned to Styrofoam lead a mother to understanding; a blind man catching fish allows a young man to re-picture his world; and in "The Ocean," perhaps the finest piece here, a scorpion sealed in a jar becomes the catalyst for a boy's freedom. Juan, the 16-year-old motel clerk who narrates the story, has never been 50 miles outside San Antonio. He dreams of running off in a Volkswagen Bug with Amy, the 25-year-old maid and divorcée who flirts with him. But Juan's father owns the motel and keeps him as bottled up as the scorpion he keeps in a glass jar under the front desk counter. Juan's father, the one truly mean character in the collection, demands sex from the maids and has nicknamed his son Industra-Klean, the name on the laundry cart he claims Juan was delivered in. Juan begins his story this way: "Stop killing your father. Go to the ocean. Love a woman. When you're young, things are supposed to be that simple." Though he knows the difference between what things are and what things are supposed to be, once the scorpion is loosed from its prison and sets to wreaking havoc, Juan catches a glimpse of the pirate life. Suddenly, the distant sea calls to him. "I've never seen the ocean," he says, "but I've heard about it."
For nearly 25 years an award-winning poethis first book, The Green Soldiers won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the most prestigious first-book competition in poetryBensko writes in an economical prose that, like poetry, keeps to essentials. But unlike many minimalists, Bensko doesn't offer only elliptical, Carver-esque dialogue and clipped emotion; he writes fully aware that what develops character most is what happens on the inside. Here, he writes of a woman initially distraught at the house her husband has rented: "Oddly, though, when she walked into the living room she was not at all depressed. At the back of the house, a picture window facing south filled the room with light. There seemed to be more sun inside the house than there had been in the yard, which didn't make sense when she thought about it, but which she accepted, even a little pleased that there was something magical about the place."
Something magical about the place is right. Bensko's deceptively simple style draws readers in almost unawares until there is suddenly no escape from his stories' radiance. As Morales, the young narrator of the title story who speaks for all pirates, says: "When you see us at the bus stop, with our bandanas wrapped around our heads and the glint of blades between our teeth, think of us as missionaries. We've come to convert you."
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