- Kingdom of the Sun: Stories by James Terry
This debut collection by James Terry contains ten stories, all set in Deming, New Mexico. They are occasionally linked by recurring characters, more often by references to common places—Sonic, Family Valu, Kingdom of the Sun Retirement Center—and most of all by recurring themes—thwarted aspiration, middle-aged nostalgia, the allures and hazards of rural living.
Characters in Terry’s stories regularly demonstrate a simultaneous dissatisfaction with, and a certain comfort taken in, small-town southwestern life; there is an innocent, insular quality about the characters’ worldview in relation to setting. In “Double Feature,” for example, a Deming truck-stop waitress is said to be “transformed” when a customer reveals to her he’s on the road from California:
“What’s it like in Los Angeles?” she gushed. “It must be so amazing.”
He took a swig of coffee and scalded his tongue.
“They can have that place as far as I’m concerned.” He winced.
But she wanted more. Had he ever seen a movie star? What was it like on the beach? Was it always warm and sunny there, even in the winter?(21)
Terry rarely patronizes or ironizes his characters’ limited scope of vision, however; there is a caring, generous, largehearted ethos about the collection’s authorial sensibility. With respect to this ethos, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio may represent an apt comparison. As for the collection’s narrative form and structure—predominantly realist, third-person stories underlining character thought (“Double Feature,” “Due Diligence”), an occasional willingness to push at the boundaries of narrative convention (“The Wildcat Massacre”), as well as the story cycle’s culmination in a near novella-length narrative involving a party after which a character experiences an epiphany in relation to a former relationship (“Luminarias”)—Terry may be said to take a cue from the Joyce of Dubliners. But unlike Joyce, Terry’s characters are not necessarily condemned to emotional or spiritual paralysis; Kingdom of the [End Page 482] Sun more often than not subtly celebrates its characters’ provincial modes of being.
The collection’s standout story is “Due Diligence,” in which Gary, a middle-aged lawyer coming off a recent election loss and suddenly nostalgic for the days in which he’d been a varsity tennis star, fishes his racket out of the closet to begin spending Wednesday afternoons at his former high school’s tennis court, hitting a ball against a backboard, “a kind of mirror that let him not only play himself but gave him occasional glimpses back on to the courts of his memory” (99). There he encounters Ray, an eighty-something retiree who strikes the Deming lawyer as impossibly cosmopolitan—Ray has lived in Paris, Swaziland, San Francisco, Micronesia—and who, despite his ancient wooden racket, proceeds to wipe the court with Gary. The following Wednesday, Gary again encounters Ray at the high school, but Ray doesn’t recognize him; Gary soon learns that Ray, suffering from Alzheimer’s, possesses no short-term memory. Wednesday after Wednesday, as Ray time and again meets Gary as if for the first time, Gary, deploying a lawyerish cunning and resolve, attempts to suss out the truth of Ray’s seemingly impossible past, until, finally, his newly discovered ploy to defeat Ray—a devious drop shot—results in the latter suffering a midmatch heart attack. Ray’s final words to Gary, as he lies dying on the tennis court, are in French, indecipherable to the Deming lawyer, yet he feels them to be “the answer to all his questions” (118).
Over the course of these ten well-crafted stories, whose protagonists vary in age, gender, class, and sensibility, Terry offers a kind of Cubist portrait of small-town life in the American Southwest. Deming, New Mexico, where “low-riders” and “pimped-out little pickups” drive “up and down the strip at a snail’s pace” (126), is portrayed in Kingdom of the Sun with honesty, perspicacity, and lyricism. [End Page 483]