The delicious economy of good short fiction can give you a character in two sentences, a world in a paragraph, or in five words deliver one exquisite detail that captures the gist of an entire story. In his new collection Happy Rock, Matthew Simmons gives us all of these, and over the course of fifteen stories set mostly in rural Michigan, a picture of an author whose loyalties are clearly located among the misfits and mistreated of the upper peninsula of the mainstream.
These are not all “stories,” as we think of narrative arc and the like. Some are portraits, some fables. Some are slippery allegories that start right off by saying: hold your reality a minute, I’ve got something to show you. “Honey” starts out in the theoretical space of memory and finishes up underground. “Saxophone Lung Explodes” explores the difficulty of grief through the fragility of homemade golems. The terrifying and most-real “Rabbit Fur Coat” takes us through the day of a Goth youth, evading bullies, or not evading them, as a rabbit to crazed dogs. Simmons’s stories contain the best qualities of Slipstream: when the plot crosses into the territory of the unreal and it doesn’t matter, because none of it is real. It is all a story, and when a boy becomes his own metaphor, when a narrator follows the untraceable pathway of a drop of blood dried on a copy of Rush’s Signals, when a prolific backyard artist covers his house in mirrors, the story is powerful. Whether or not they exist, we mourn the losses. Over and over again we feel loss, sadness, and the elation of characters who, despite grief, hardship, and a general mis-fit, persevere. Or not.
Another author’s take on this character type would see the misunderstood protagonists leave their small town, flee to the anonymity of metropolitan life, where every person must cling so hard to the center of their own world that they are too busy to notice the one next to them, whose own center is far, far away and unreachable. Simmons’ characters stay put. They might retreat with their dog to the wilderness, but escape is a last, suicidal resort. The most you can do, this collection seems to say, is find a way to be yourself right here in Michigan.
It is a risky venture, hewing all one’s characters so close to a single type–both geographically and personality-wise. Simmons has a compassion for adolescents (and adults apparently stuck in adolescence) reminiscent of Kelly Link. He navigates the weird territory of being a teenager so vividly that it makes the reader uncomfortable and nostalgic at the same time.
And yet, most of the misfit characters with whom we are made to empathize so deeply are boys (and men-boys), specifically working-class white boys who live in a specific place in a specific time, dealing with their peers’ misunderstandings and potential lovers’ rejections.* In a story collection, where so many points of view are possible, is it unreasonable to crave more variety? One of the wonderful things about reading collections vs. novels is the anticipation of whose head we get to occupy next.
This reviewer is in a quandary: If a collection of stories relies so heavily on the same type of character, is the author offering stories close to home because he emphatically believes they need telling? Or is he suffering from a lack of imagination?
No one could accuse Matthew Simmons of being unimaginative, however. And though I do, as a reader, tire sometimes of reading piles of unremittingly boy-centric tales, those in Happy Rock are wild and weird enough to make me ignore this fatigue.
*With the notable and excellent example of the title story, a visceral beast of a story in which two women in their twenties have conversation after conversation that ace the shit out of the Bechdel test.