- Who We intend to Be
the Deaf School
Texas A&M University Press
144 Pages; Print, $14.95
The House Across from the Deaf School presents us with a sui generis voice of hope, struggle, reminiscence, and despair. In his third collection of short stories, author Michael Gills engages readers with a psalm in one hand and bloody hunting knife in the other. The author's lexicon is raw-boned and muscular, insightful and severe. There is soulfulness at work here. This fiction blends the colloquial intuition of heartbreak with the physical fluency of a pugilist intent upon protecting his broken heart.
Set in the backwoods of Lonoke County, Arkansas, "where every house had a vegetable garden growing up to its back door, and dead animals littered the roadside," protagonist and sometimes anti-hero Joey Harvell reflects about growing up with O.W., an abusive although not completely bad step-father. After all, O.W. taught Harvell to still-hunt and once bailed him out of jail even though Harvell had "broke" one of his teeth. "I have not forgotten how it was those forty Augusts ago," recalls Harvell, "turning the face I wore as a boy to the heat of day."
Memory plays a major role in establishing the framework and tenor of these stories. In "Puercos Gordos," Emile Burgin, a famous drunk amputee, recalls how Harvell once fumbled the football on the one-yard line during a wet playoff game. In the story, Harvell himself is reminiscing about this exchange with the father of his then girlfriend Kim. There are love letters, the old man's death, and finally the Star Herald's announcement of Kim's forthcoming marriage to another Lonoke local.
Years later, Harvell nurses his recollections "with another whiskey" before passing out on the living room floor in front of his daughter, Lara. The story ends with the hope and hopelessness of prayer:
One of us or the other will say the prayer, offer thanks for all the blessings in our lives, ask mercy for the destitute, the ill, the hungry and the drunk, the recently departed, all that. We'll be holding hands, saying Amen.
Gills draws us into these interlinked stories with trenchant accounts of formidable characters, each extraordinarily etched with an individuality of soul. Yes, many stories are "mostly lost to history" as Harvell admits of his grandfather's rehabilitation in "Eternally Yours." But much remains to be told. Although Gills emphasizes the role memory plays in our expressions of personal narrative, he's equally wary of the verities we draw from what we remember, how we remember.
In "Last Words on Lonoke," Harvell opines:
Now that the house where this all happened is lost to foreclosure, there remains nothing concrete to prove what's happened in our lives save pure memory, which is a lousy-ass alternative to mortar and brick, stone and joist, flesh and bone.
Sadly, sometimes memory is inadequate. Which may be why, Gills suggests, that relationships should be paramount in our lives: friends and loved ones serve to remind us of who we are—or, perhaps more importantly, who we intend to be. (This notion is explicit in the book's "Afterward," which includes an e-mail correspondence between the author and his late friend and publisher, Paul Ruffin.)
Throughout these stories, Harvell reveals himself a champion, martyr, accuser, and accomplice. In "Welcome to the Authentic Trail of Tears," it's hog killing day. Harvell's job is to scratch General George Custer's back with a stick because that's what the shoat likes. Two pages later, the pig is shot between the eyes and "lay there in a spasm, bleeding on the dead pine needles."
The literary road Gills's paves is bespeckled with the pig shit of dead pigs. There are those episodes that render these pages cooler than freezer-burned ice. There are moments of unequaled love and lucidity, too. The author's baseline language, his tone and pitch, serve as literary oxygen for narrative arcs that...