- Abundant Light
Travel and reunions affect sudden knowledge in this volume of reflective yet fast-moving stories. Most reveal the adaptive talents or deficiencies of travelers and pilgrims, some of whom opt to stay put. Not everyone is sold on travel. Beyond the pilgrims are the bewildered, the skeptics, and the just plain myopic, as in "Veranda," where a university professor who "worked on images of motion in Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac" asks if his India-bound colleague is "'Going for a little cultural tourism . . . Such teaching abroad is a form of neocolonialism.'" How to explain the urge to travel, especially for women famously "of a certain age" and off the beaten path?
The unspoken query, why bother, why leave home, why face new routines, haunts those whose lives have been defined by earlier trips. The provocative "Always Avoid Accidents" presents the Indian-born, U.S. educated senior professor, Walter. On completing seven years at the top of his doctoral class in Montana, Walter and his wife were fired by the idealism of the Civil Rights era. They "return home to help build the New India. Thus he made the fateful decision of accepting a post in this remote hill station." Subsequent decades find him in the role of intelligent host, [End Page 183] careening through traffic, asking good questions. When an unannounced visitor suggests a visiting professorship to the U.S., Walter can barely imagine emailing an application or reading the new books that would qualify him to teach postcolonial fiction. Walter, who "remembered this 'can do' mentality of Americans, how it used to stimulate him," settles for Dean Martin recordings, an occasional visiting lecturer, peanuts in a souvenir Western bowl, the ghosts of Missoula and of Watergate as he remembers it. Rendering himself immune to new experience, he drifts in the nostalgia that marks this postcolonial world, be it Los Angeles or the Himalayan foothills, where modernity's smog obscures the mountains.
Alternative travels appear in "Greyhound, 1970," which recounts the adventures of an eighty-year-old woman who hops a bus, where an ever-changing panorama of seatmates, of the interstate, of daydreaming about her past bring incongruous enlightenment. An immigrant from Scotland, she perches Liberty-like by the window and high above the road, welcoming more recent immigrants. As she heads from northwest to southeast, then across the country, then from Los Angeles to San Francisco, her life stories and her fellow travelers' itineraries suggest social history and anticipate a next generation of storytellers.
While memories offer consolation for age's infirmities, self-knowledge presents the better reward for having survived reckless youth. What room for spontaneity and at what costs are questions recurring throughout Miner's work, as in the title story where the unplanned reunion of a couple married to one another for two years, a quarter century ago takes place. Each now is middle-aged and away from family, their not-quite-chance meeting occurs while they're on artist residencies in the Canadian West. The locale recalls the university where they originally met. Set against the semi-resort backdrop of Banff, its Disney-honeymoon-destination semblance is wittily sketched. The two protagonists gingerly renew acquaintance: she's a successful painter, remarried, with grown children; he switched from writing to working as a producer-director for a small theater. She struggles to comprehend his having a wife much younger and school-aged children. He still can't fathom her departure: "he tried to keep her, while she needed air." She was unfaithful: will she be so again? Nothing is certain: "She ached for that risky part of herself."
Travel's relation to age and to increased retreat, to reluctance and the inability to start anew finds narrators examining their mortality in stories such as "Cocktails" and "What She Didn't Say," which put aside the recklessness but not the optimism that fueled earlier travel and cross-continental moves. From bearing witness to death we emerge living, as in "Veranda," which is set between the street and a Calcutta graveyard. The thirty-five year-old narrator, widowed five years earlier, is...