Haunted by History 

There's no escaping the past in William Henry Lewis' new stories

There's no escaping the past in William Henry Lewis' new stories

I Got Somebody in Staunton: Stories

By William Henry Lewis (Amistad, 224 pp., $23.95)

For all voracious readers, there eventually comes a day—and it's usually around page 50 of a so-so book—when realization hits: I don't have to finish this. There are too many other books out there, too many other stories I'd rather hear told. Instead of enduring yet another slightly long-winded novel, I'd rather find an author who reminds me, Oh, yes of course, this is why I read. There's lyricism and complexity and the total absence of any well-crafted, workshopped-to-death safety.

William Henry Lewis is well on his way to earning such praise. From the beginning of his new short story collection I Got Somebody in Staunton, the reader knows this is one of the good ones. Born in Denver, Lewis spent his growing-up years in Chattanooga, and I Got Somebody in Staunton is his long-awaited second collection. (The first, In the Arms of Our Elders, appeared 10 years ago to enormous critical praise.)

His prose is sensory, strong with a sense of place. Consider this passage from "In the Swamp": "It was very late, if not already early. The heat of the day had long given up, and the air was sweet, the way it is at four in the morning, when only drunks and lovers take notice. Wind pushed at the trees without a sound, and the scent of black locust and new hay discs blew across the fields."

Lewis doesn't shout: his language is tight and controlled, smooth even, weighted with rhythm and complexity. Like jazz with its improvisational unpredictability, though, there's a sense that something deeper lies behind each sentence. History—the actual past, as well as its lingering memory—is a silent, though very present, theme that runs throughout the collection, and it hangs heavy over the characters.

In the opening story, "Shades," a fatherless man tells how, when he was 10, his mother finally revealed the harsh reality of his conception: "She told me what it was to love someone, what it was to make love to someone, and what it took to make someone. Sometimes, she told me, all three don't happen at once." The man understands his mother's need to explain but at the time he "felt uncomfortable with it, the way secondhand shoes are at first comfortless. I grew to know the discomfort as a way of living." In Lewis' world, people are never quite able to shake their own beginning, let alone confess it to the world. Every day's a confrontation, a collision, as one character says, between "[w]hat to tell, what to remember, what not to tell."

Many of Lewis' stories are structured around flashbacks, and though he might want to consider varying his strategy a bit with the next collection, the idea of using form to show how the past continually influences the present works here. The reader sees the characters as fully developed and understands the complexities of their vices and virtues. "Kudzu," for example, isn't just about a couple falling into, then out of, love. It's about the aftereffects of a relationship, the way a young woman from a small town can transform herself into a well-traveled bohemian. Seen through the eyes of the young man she leaves behind, the story reveals the mystery of what we become as a result of any relationship. Likewise, in the title story, a young black man meets a young white woman in a bar and offers her a ride to the town of Staunton. As they drive away together, the young man suddenly remembers his uncle's tales of Jim Crow lynchings—Emmett Till, the Scottsboro Boys—and becomes much more reserved. By the time they stop for gas, encountering a group of young white men, he's almost panicking—though the men turn out to be perfectly friendly.

Though politics and race relations are certainly present, there is never an agenda—or at least not an agenda that gets in the way—with Lewis' storytelling. Rather, he works by overturning assumptions, revealing one's inherent biases by holding them up for inspection. In Lewis' first book, his focus was primarily on the African American family, and though the characters in I Got Somebody in Staunton are presumably all African American as well, his work is not one to be pigeonholed as culturally specific. His subject may concern Black America, but just as a "woman's writer" can appeal to even the toughest of male readers, so too do the stories in this collection transcend any labeling that one might attach to them. Good fiction is good fiction. Lyricism and voice aren't common enough. When you see them, you better grab on.

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