- Off Track and the Climb Back
John Hopkins University
240 Pages; Print, 19.95
What happens in the murky spaces between bright streets and crowded playgrounds? Where do the children go when no adult can bother to wonder; what do the adults get up to when grief, addiction, and sex stop up their senses and make them forget the roles they're supposed to play?
Adrianne Harun shows us the answers in her third book, Catch, Release, a collection of short stories linked by her protagonists' dark urges and unblinking shamelessness. Feral children learn slyness in scuzzy alleys and pickup beds. Teenage girls flaunt new breasts at teachers, cousins, and other dangerous men. Parents grieve dead children or don't notice the live ones at all. Most unsettling, though, is that Harun doesn't give us glimpses of some dismal alien fantasy. Readers can pretend they don't recognize themselves in the failed caregivers and underage sexpots, but this is us—or, at least, the people we might be if not for this moment of restraint or that steadying reminder that someone could have been watching. Harun has types, but our attention does not wane as we see them reappear here and again throughout various stories; they haunt us with increasing volume and violence, as poltergeists demanding full attention. In "Pearl Diving," the teenage temptress is Laura, who
looked like a woman out of a black- and white movie. Everyone tried to hit on her: jocks, potheads, the theatre crowd, even the vice-principal, Mr. Nugent, followed her languorous swish through the halls as if waiting for an infraction that would allow him to call her into his private office.
Laura pipes her tune; men and boys fall and fight, then worse. In "Two Girls Off Quarry Road," fifteen-year-old Cleo leads the grown men of the town around by their belt buckles, learning that "she could scare the pants, literally, off any man she chose." In "Swallow," it's Elyse, her sweet voice and fairy-tale red hair enchanting teenage boys and her wolf-like younger brother, Bruno. Not all of these girls make it through their narratives unscathed, but though we recognize how they are used, they seem to reject our sympathy, asking us what good it does them.
Whether protagonists or antagonists, Harun's adult female characters are lost, confused, or absent. They are mourners or murderers or hostages of their worries. The speaker in "Lost in the War of the Beautiful Lads," a grieving mother, searches for a relationship with her daughter after it is too late. She is set against characters like Ida of "Madame Ida," who is pulled from her despair over her absent son by three mischievous neighbor girls and Otarine in "The New Arrival," "a slice of a woman" dragging herself through long days with a sick child until a wish-granting cousin arrives from a land far, far away. These mothers of dead, gone, or almost gone children are the other side of the coin Harun offers us in the stories about wild and wily juveniles—women who, without their children, no longer make sense to themselves.
The adult male characters in the collection span a broader spectrum of personalities and circumstances, from victims of ghostly lust and failed memory to vengeful devil-men and saviors. However, the only one to really escape the vulnerability and emotional struggles so central to Harun's adult characters is Dom from "A Dead Man's Land," whose quiet ferociousness and lack of attachments give readers the same guilty thrill as ripping off too-new scabs.
However, as the stories' children shun our coddling, the adults escape our scorn and pity. Harun grants us access to their weaknesses, regrets, and small desires, and in return, we meet them with empathy (or fascination, in Dom's case). We cheer on Nora's crazy mission to find her lost husband through nursing home gossip in "Catch, Release," and celebrate Laurie's rediscovery of a far-gone connection in "My Witness." We revel in the myth and magic woven between the words and around...