“The imagination will not down,” William Carlos Williams writes in The Great American Novel. “If it is not dance, a song, it becomes an outcry, a protest. If it is not flamboyance it becomes deformity. If it is not art, it becomes crime. Men and women cannot be content, any more than children, with the mere facts of a humdrum life—the imagination must adorn and exaggerate life, must give it splendor and grotesqueness, beauty and infinite depth.”
What Gary Amdahl’s imperfect collection of short stories Visigoth lacks, when it lacks anything, is imagination. In these cases what Amdahl gives us is an outcry, a protest against the mere facts of humdrum lives that is absent the imagination, complexity, and depth that he is sometimes able to achieve.
This is not to say that Visigoth is bad. Nor, that Amdahl is a poor writer. It is only to say that a swagger infects and inflects Amdahl’s prose. It is a simultaneously mournful and cocky tone born of the shameful sentimentality that comes from idealizing the America that preceded the bland and easy country we now navigate in air-conditioned cars on streets with well-maintained medians.
The characters of Visigoth, Amdahl’s first collection of short stories, respond to our alleged cultural blandscape by cultivating conflict: it is the antidote to the banality of their lives. And while they are aware that their braggadocio and bravado is a posture, a self-conscious creating, his characters are also too enamored with their own self-destructive tendencies to change. You have read about this before, the man trapped and frustrated in modern suburbs while he longs for the harsh reality of the past.
Here, in barest form, is what happens in the stories of Visigoth. Undersized kid excels at wrestling, goes insane. Star hockey player explodes when his graduate-student girlfriend dumps him, convinces himself he will “end in a madhouse.” Over-educated bouncer is implicated in a crime, gets away, realizes he had “no control over any of it at all.” Young man of “mild features and demeanor” leads a quiet life, coaches hockey, is knocked over by the husband of a woman he has met twice, is left unable to breathe, unable to stop shaking. Husband flees California for Minnesota with his dog and his cat, dog dies upon arrival, man dreams of a “golden dog crossing a road.” Man who has been living the Northwest Territory comes back to his wife’s effete Connecticut community, and finds himself alone. Idealistic politician is nearly killed and thoroughly disenchanted by a kidnapping and a riot that erupts when is helping union laborers in northern Minnesota. Writer ruminates on the murder of his uncle.
But one-sentence summaries of any story—no matter how remarkable—end up sounding facetious. Amdahl’s stories are better than they appear in the paragraph above. Some of them are quite good. Mostly, though, they are uneven.
Amdahl is capable of writing sentences like, “The great Forest Falls chili cook-off was in progress!” But he is also capable of describing the death of a narrator’s sled dogs like this, “We watched as they scrabbled and pawed the ice, some of them getting up only to have it break or the weight of the other dogs yank them off. The sleds got hung up on chunks of ice, so it wasn’t until spring that they sank. It’s so deep there, two thousand feet deep, that I sometimes imagine them still sinking, the sleds now pulling them.”
Perhaps this wavering is an inevitable outcome of the insane phenomenon of first book as collection of short stories. The collection is a form that exposes the weaknesses of any writer, and that sinks the tyro. It only increases the opportunities for weak openings and stale endings. Repetition, which we may consider lyrical in a novel, appears only to be repetition. Middles, where a writer can wander, are truncated into direct trips that are paused only so we can glean bits of necessary information.
That all is to say that while Visigoth isn’t perfect, Amdahl shows promise that may be better suited to a novel. He is at his best when he allows himself to wander.
The title story begins, “I am a hockey player,” and goes on to become the staid story of a jock whose athletic prowess and toughness belies his broad intellect and deep sensitivity. It is a fine, serviceable story, but efficiency is not the aim of art.
“The Barber-Chair,” on the other hand, begins wonderfully: “The sky as blue as if all of space were blue, as if the outer darkness and all its unimaginably remote crystalline sphere and slowly revolving heavenly bodies were shades of blue.” With the ambling misdirection that characterizes much good first-person narration, we are told of a life in the furthest remoteness of the Arctic, love quietly devolving into companionship, a glimpse of William Styron, a truck that almost rolls into disaster, the felling of a tree. Within this, in bits, is the beautifully written story of why the lovers, a young couple, returned. After this, there is a grim accident that feels less like an ending and more like a coda.
Without the adornments and exaggerations of imagination, “the mere facts of a humdrum life” remain mere and humdrum. With them, “the mere facts” become splendid and grotesque lies. Visigoth vacillates between the two.
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