- Uncertain Parenthood
Whatever the perspective or location, the stories in Michael Hemmingson's Pictures of Houses with Water Damage always return to their common fixations (or at least one of them): unwanted, uncertain, or tainted parenthood (mostly the fear or distance of the father), the lure of drink and extramarital adventure (above all, over and over again: cheating and being cheated on), the flaws of memory, the near impossibility of relationships succeeding (mostly romantic ones), and all of it tinged with a dominant mood: the loneliness and longing inherent in seeking human connection.
In "Forbidden Scenes of Affection," a story sandwiched at the halfway point of this quietly compelling collection, we find a narrator consumed by an affair with a pregnant woman who's uncertain who the father might be. Despite knowing it's not him—he'd entered the picture too late to be a suspect—the narrator says, after the birth, "'Maybe the baby is mine'" and then, "'It should be mine.'" She concedes she'd "like that, too" while confessing in nearly the same breath that she can't control her desire for sex with other men. These are the sort of competing longings that color much of Hemmingson's work. Characters either seek release from long-flawed relationships or, jaded and lonely, desperately want into one despite what will clearly be trouble. They are ne'er-do-wells, adulterers, drinkers, and drifters, divorcees and distant dads. Their worlds float along on unadorned sentences imbued with both whimsy and sadness—a minimal, flat affect of voice that here and there recalls Raymond Carver, even Denis Johnson (in Jesus' Son  mode), albeit with a lighter, weirder touch that revels in its own uncertainty.
What's uncertain in Pictures of Houses with Water Damage might be something knowable (yet still unknown) like a character's infidelity or paternity or past. It might also be the uncertainty of memory itself or—more archly—the narrator intentionally misinforming us. In "You Will Not Believe What Happens to Me, But Does it Matter?", the author presses this move like a thesis statement. (Alert: I'll be giving a few things away here.) In this story, a freshly stunned father leaves the maternity ward for a strip bar, where a stripper eventually invites him home, and he is robbed and raped by her crack addict boyfriend. The reader accepts this at face value until the narrator reveals that none of it happened. "Everything I just told you is a lie," he says, a paranoid fantasy with "a moral base": new fathers who cheat on their wives will pay. That he suspects his wife cheated on him and he is not the child's father only casts the story's universe into further confusion. Such narrative switcheroos can test a reader's faith—and more than they raise the intended questions about motive or memory or our acceptance of "truth."
Although the author sometimes telegraphs this sort of punch, the same move seems to work elsewhere, especially in the brief "Give Me the Gun, He Says," where the narrator's confession of unreliability blends in more lyrically, like the natural progression to a dark prose poem. The shorter pieces in this collection, in fact, tend to land the most potently, with a shimmer or hint of surprise. "Cyclops," "Baby Brother," and "Branches" all pack a great deal of story and feeling into a relatively small space, as does "Last Visit," with its closing twist so lurid and unexpected I had to read it twice to be sure I understood (infidelity and parenthood get wed in a whole different way). The current culture of the "short short" too often produces mere sketches or cute curiosities, yet Hemmingson covers full, unique story arcs in three-to-four pages, here influenced perhaps by Barry Hannah, who covered brief story ranges with as much odd comic power as anyone. (Hemmingson's collection is dedicated in part to the memory of Hannah.)
Hemmingson is not nearly as colorful a stylist as Hannah, but his technical...