What are the thoughts that run through our heads when we eat at a small-town restaurant? Do we look past the crappy bowl of soup in front of us to the hobbled steps that brought it to our table? What is our honest opinion of the kitchen staff we may catch a glimpse of? Are they too lazy to go out and get real jobs, or might there be more complicated factors at work?
Life is hard, period, but it is especially difficult in the poverty-stricken foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. In Geoffrey Smagacz’s, A Waste of Shame (from the forthcoming, A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills [Wiseblood Books]), we follow a small group of young adults as they sometimes confront, but more often than not attempt to avoid, the facts of life and the repercussions of their choices. As we watch this new generation make decisions that lock themselves and those around them into the cycle of poverty and pain, we may be left wondering if it is even possible for these young people to break out of it at all. Woven into this fabric we find an excellent study of character, and a writer’s engagement with the contemporary milieu in which he writes.
A Waste of Shame, gives us a wonderful illustration of just how powerful Minimalism can be when invoking character, especially in its volcanic first chapter. By chapter’s end, we have been presented with very few concrete details about our protagonist, Kevin, but we feel pretty confident that we know who he is and what his relationships are with the people around him. It is a wonderful evocation of the timeless nature of frustrated, unbridled youth, and it is immediately apparent why this chapter has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
The placement of the entirety of Shakespeare’s, Sonnet 129, in the prologue is a curious move, one which begs our careful consideration. Sonnet 129, is basically an extended rant on the dangers of unbridled lust, and our early inclination may be to assume that it points towards interpreting this story as a condemnation of the young men who abandon their wives and children for the pursuit of base pleasures. This interpretation ties in nicely with the way that Kevin is shocked to learn that Jim is cheating on his pregnant girlfriend, and how he is outraged when he learns that Jim has continued the affair after his marriage, but at times Kevin also seems to be complicit, almost jealous of Jim’s affair. The more we learn about Kevin, the more we wonder if he isn’t just angry that he’s not the one getting laid.
As our understanding of Kevin continues to expand, we begin to suspect that maybe he’s a better explanation for the presence of the sonnet (this is a brilliant character study, after all). Once again, we find this cannot be a simple application of condemnation. Not only is there an anger and frustration to Kevin, but there’s also the effects of a crippling bout of depression; a fact that he can’t see and, given the first-person narration, it takes us a bit longer to realize is there.
So what are we to make of the sonnet in the prologue? Can we find a better fit for it? While it may contain a good deal of insight into human nature, you might start to wonder how much attention the average contemporary reader will be willing to give it. Many readers may just skip over it. It sounds too harsh to our contemporary ears: too Elizabethan, too poetic, too moralizing. Don’t we prefer our characters more like Kevin?
The answer lies in the brilliance of this book; what it has to add to the conversation. We begin by acknowledging the fact that the old rules regarding character have changed. There was a time, not long ago, when writers simply needed to leave the stagnant harbors of the bourgeois and nobility for the safer shores of the peasantry and other fringe groups of society; but, this is the age of soap operas and syndicated tabloid talk shows. Consider for a moment how readers might react to characters such as those we find in, A Waste of Shame, after they’ve had such a prodigious helping of Jerry Springer. Will readers still be able to find in these characters the epitome of the human condition, or will they just see a bunch of hillbillies who need to stop drinking, smoking, and cheating on their wives? Will they still sympathize with our narrator, Kevin, or will they just want him to get off his ass and go back to college and get a real job?
These are questions that Smagacz openly wrestles with, and there are moments where the thoughts of Kevin seem to be overtaken by those of the author: “I must have heaved several sighs, but who could hear over mom’s soap opera? Sappy strings tried to direct her to feel trepidation over some immanent doom.” Later at a party, we find that, “the song Don played was kind of rock and roll and kind of twangy at the same time, a tune with a sappy story. “ Upon hearing this song, one listener seems to voice the consensus of those around him (and potentially us) when he asks, “What is this shit?”
There is more to this than just the standard, post-modern questioning of plot. This goes much deeper, to the many debates recently regarding the authenticity of character in fiction; of what exactly is believable and what is worthy of our sympathy. Here is a well written text that is both believable and full of characters that more than deserve our sympathy, and it dares to ask us what we make of it. Do we really know ourselves well enough to answer, and are we honest enough to admit our judgment? Perhaps the crisis is not in literature, it is in us.
There is much more to be found in this and the other short stories that are included in this volume. Don’t let the cover fool you; “literary fiction that scrupulously avoids being literary,” does not mean that it is short on themes, conflicts, and many of the other literary elements that make fiction worth reading. There is plenty here to satisfy readers with both contemporary and more traditional literary interpretations (know of any other young men in Shakespeare who were unable to summon themselves to action?).
The late James Laughlin’s publishing house, New Directions, is the standard at the moment for contemporary fiction. When you see ND on the spine, you know that you’re getting a solid work that is actively engaged with contemporary literary concerns. It is still too early to tell what will become of the upstart Wiseblood Books, but such a strong entry as this early on is a sign that it is heading in the right direction.