Christopher Meeks' new short story collection, Months and Seasons, has become a sort of grassroots movement, a favorite of small press reviewers, bloggers, and veteran Amazon junkies. The slim volume of thirteen stories (plus an excerpt from his upcoming novel as a "bonus track") is uneven, sometimes awkward, but redeemed again and again by the author's generosity and perceptiveness.
Meeks' many online fans are fond of comparing his writing to Raymond Carver's, presumably for its emotional honesty and slightly macho simplicity. Fans of displays of verbal virtuosity, myself included, are likely to be disappointed by Meeks' spare and at times merely workaday prose, but anyone who passes up Months and Seasons for its lack of finesse will miss some real gems.
The highlight of the collection, "The Farms at 93rd and Broadway," is as fine a short story as any I've read this year. Hubert is a man calcified into late middle age, readily thwarted by a series of ordinary disappointments, grumpy and quick to anger, both embarrassed by and envious of his wife Edith's free spirit at their advanced age. The story begins over the breakfast newspaper, when Hubert says to his wife, "You ain't bad."
His wife responds with "I love you, too." But "He wasn't talking about love. She didn't understand. Love's a good thing, yes, and that's probably what he should have said, but that wasn't his point. He was about to say something to clarify, but she was already back to reading."
Edith convinces Hubert to go with her on rare romantic jaunt to the theater; small misunderstandings and disappointments dog the pair. A string of ordinary incidents leads Hubert and Edith to a hypnotist's stage show, where Edith remembers a previous life as a chicken on a farm, strutting and rutting before the laughing audience.
Right here is where a more conventional short story would applaud Edith for her newfound freedom, the reader would be made to cheer Edith on as she leaves her stuffy husband and strikes off alone. Meeks resists the urge and surprises us with a radical change of sympathies and a resolution that is bracing, beautiful, and true. Meeks' narrative leap is absolutely sure-footed and daring. The result is neither strictly realistic nor "surreal" (as some reviewers have dubbed it) but instead accomplishes the graceful marriage of both.
"Catalina," the short short that follows, is as capable with the simple truth as "The Farms" was with the absurd. An aging Greek immigrant to America takes a pleasure boat on a brief trip to Catalina Island, a recreation destination off the coast of Los Angeles. There, he is dogged by grief, as well as by the same sort of misunderstandings and miscommunication that imprisoned Hubert, until he learns a small, late lesson in sympathy.
One of the common themes is men without women, and the havoc it brings: In "The Holes in My Door," a man shoots himself in the foot, quite literally, after his wife leaves him alone with his paralyzing preoccupations. In "A Shoe Falls," another frustrated husband rehearses the farewell speech he will give his wife, one, ultimately, he is too afraid to use.
What characterizes the best of these stories are the partnerships between two people: husband and wife, but also passing strangers (as in "Catalina"). Meeks is fine at sustaining this type of intimacy, but in longer stories with a wider cast of characters, like "The Sun is a Billiard Ball" or "Breaking Water," it's more difficult to maintain the level of intensity. Too many characters or too many narrative threads disrupt the graceful ease of his shorter stories.
Months and Seasons is a deceptive book. Its first story, "Dracula Slinks Into the Night," typifies Meeks' combination of verbal simplicity and psychological insight. Readers may be turned off by the flat, declamatory style of first-person narration ("I was forty-two . . . that weekend I would have a big contract to write as well as unfair labor practices to consider. My firm specialized in labor law," the narrator explains clearly if not artfully) but they will find themselves seduced by Meeks' combination of sympathy and honesty. In "Dracula" another married couple embarks on an outing, this time to a Halloween party in Pasadena, where the fearful, controlling husband learns to love life's randomness after he is injured in a serious fall. Lying on his back besides his long-suffering wife, he says,
"What I didn't know then was that I had cracked a rib in my fall. What I also didn't know was that in two days I would happen to cough, which would separate my rib into two, sending me into such a white-walled paroxysm of pain that I would have to be ambulanced from my work's law library to a hospital."
What he does know is that he can accept this life, its randomness and fear, with the freedom that comes from letting go, a lesson that comes to many of Meeks' best characters, even if they have to take a fall to learn it.
-Summer Block Kumar