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  • Behind the Curtain
  • Speer Morgan

One of the exemplary roles of art is to seek the truth—or some reasonable version of it—in the multiplex of illusions that surrounds humans. It can be sought in ways that are realistic, absurd and every way in between. Two of the most famous literary characters who go astray in their efforts to find out what’s really happening are Othello and Hamlet. “Of a free and open nature,” Othello is naïve enough that he can “as tenderly be led by th’ nose/As asses are” by Iago. Young Prince Hamlet is so vividly aware of the mendacity in his world that he becomes an eloquent metaphysical seeker but scarcely able to act. Most of the other characters at the Castle of Elsinore are just as lost in its haze of dissemblance, making Hamlet’s father’s ghost, though vengeful and obsessed, one of the clearest voices there. Melville’s Moby Dick is another epic tragedy of deception and of human beings becoming enrolled in an insane, destructive quest—in this case the crew members of “the rushing Pequod” bending to the will of the megalomaniacal and bitter Captain Ahab and “plunging into that blackness of darkness” to eradicate the imagined evil that he projects onto the blank screen of the white whale’s forehead.

In this issue’s story “An Alcoholic’s Guide to Peru and Chile,” Rick Bass’s unemployed logger tries desperately to evade the results of bad luck and bad choices. Recently injured and unable to find a job, with a wife who’s left him, he decides to have one last good experience with his two nearly grown daughters by taking them on a trip to South America. With a logger’s bravado, he has always managed before but now is brought [End Page 5] to a crisis that he will have to face if he’s going to survive. “A Visit” by Kevin Wilson tells the story of Missy, a working mother who’s about to reach a moment of reckoning as definitive as Bass’s logger’s. She lives in Atlanta but makes a visit to her hometown of Slidell, Louisiana, where her mother’s house has been broken into and her mother assaulted and robbed. The trip becomes a catalyst for Missy to admit and acknowledge the limitations of her life as well as her own self-delusions. She goes from a less-than-idyllic dalliance with the unlikeliest of men to fantasizing about how to escape from her own choices.

Faith Shearin’s “Transformations” is an evocative look at the ways children learn about their parents and at how homes and the people who have lived in them are mythologized. The parents of two daughters are forever restless about where they live and have developed the habit of looking at real estate. The daughters observe the mother, and both share in her curiosity, especially about one house that is the source of a local myth. Shearin wonders about the origin of such myths, and in this case whether they might partly arise from the things that children sense but don’t fully understand about their own parents. Fred Leebron’s “The Youth of North America” is also about youth and age, this time from the point of view of an older man who for many years has been the leader of workshops abroad. This trip is to Barcelona, a city he knows quite well. His experience distances him from the younger people in the group, and one night he goes out drinking with two of them, only to discover the fallacy in his illusion of control and seasoned invulnerability.

“The Salted Leg” by Gary Lee Miller is a tale about a young Union soldier, Joshua Clantz, who fought in the Army of the Potomac with his friend and comrade Private Orland MacDonald. They “battled and blundered through the whole gory spectacle, killing and cowering, chawing woody chunks of biscuit and rotten beef, burying bloated heaps of the dead and marching awake and asleep.” They are taunted by the older men in the regiment, which only serves to unite them in a pact: “If...


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