- The Wild Beckons
In her newest collection of short stories Wild Things, Jaimee Wriston Colbert features courageous survivors of a world teetering on the edge of extinction. "We haven't hit invisible yet," says Birdie in "Gravity," who goes on to describe how her town and the rest of Upstate New York is in peril after robotics and outsourcing close down blue collar manufacturing and factory jobs and environmental regulations run lax. These are characters trapped amid the blight and decay of a rural locale, where jobs are as endangered as the species that inhabit the area surrounding the Susquehanna River and despair permeates the atmosphere like pollution. And yet they cling on, desperately, like the Ohia tree in "Things Blow Up," growing on the side of a Hawaiian volcano, it's roots reaching down, down and gripping the earth for stability amid a rupturing environment.
Colbert has created a masterpiece of short stories in which the vulnerability of all life is exposed and loneliness reigns supreme. Each of her narrating characters feel themselves to be outsiders to the world that holds them captive, and yet she shows their interconnectivity in a way that disputes how these characters see themselves situated in the world. This isn't to say that their feelings of isolation are not authentic; in fact, the sheer desperation they face and the loneliness they endure reflects the most universal of human experiences and allows for an authenticity that writers strive to capture and that Colbert incorporates with immense success.
Part of the brilliance of this collection, however, is how the stories are interwoven. Each character is a story—seemingly isolated—and yet all make up a larger community that establishes a novel of sorts in which, while not necessarily sequential, the stories are linked. The main character of one story appears momentarily as a passing character in another story, exposing a character's life from a perspective outside their own own. In effect, one's personal story becomes a linked backstory to another character when the context widens, conveying a communal wholeness to the brokenness that occupies these characters' lives.
The story "Wild Things I—Ghosts" addresses the concept of wholeness on a meta-level. Jones recounts how the girl whom he is holding captive—or safeguarding, as he perceives it—reminds him of a clam shell he found on the beach in his boyhood: "It was beautiful and so fragile, and he was overcome by a desire to rescue it, to keep it whole. It seemed to him then that the world conspired against such things, that the way things were was more about brokenness." Colbert gives us a collection of beautiful, haunting stories that, while stylistically fragmented, are ultimately pieced together by an omniscient hand to create the larger, unified story of a town overrun by loss and despair.
The common thread occupying each of these stories is the town near the Susquehanna River, where people are wealthy in tribulations and not in capital. As we see across the stories, while the characters deal with very personal and deeply distressing issues—like faulty or failing relationships, vanished or lackluster jobs, meth addiction, and loss—these are issues that unite rather than divide. And yet, despite the deep suffering of these characters, they never experience overwhelming hopelessness. They yearn for something greater, typically sought after in nature, that gives them hope for a better future.
Colbert writes affectionately about nature. Whether she's describing "two little fawns… bumping into each other…those spindly legs all akimbo…rubbing their soft little heads against his pant-legs" or describing the weightlessness of birds, where, "on our frosty fall mornings before the hummingbirds leave for the southern sunshine you can pick one up—the cold makes them sluggish—and it'll warm in your hand then whoosh, off it goes," there is a sanctity to the natural world to which her narrators all bear witness. In describing the wild in this manner, Colbert creates fleeting scenes where time slows and, for that moment, an...