Heartbreaking stories grounded in a fractured reality, love and the strange things it makes us do, neighbors and the heavy weight of proximity, this is Sarah Court. A collection of connected, interlinking narratives, Sarah Court (ChiZine Publications) by Craig Davidson is set in a circle of houses, each neighbor with their own story to tell. Reminiscent of Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, but set in the area around Niagara Falls, we get to see from several different perspectives how things unfold when there is death next door, the trickle down of sweat and violence from one family to the next, the way that love and lust intertwine young passions, families infecting each other. The residents:
“The haunted father of a washed-up stuntman. A disgraced surgeon and his son, a broken-down boxer. A father set on permanent self-destruct, and his daughter, a reluctant powerlifter. A fireworks-maker and his daughter. A very peculiar boy and his equally peculiar adopted family.
Five houses. Five families. One block.”
And that’s not everyone. I’ve left out Mama and Sunshine and Matilda the pitbull, but it’s certainly a start.
And what about that block, Sarah Court, what kind of place is this that holds in its cupped hands lonely lives filled with divorce and crushed dreams, failure riding on the backs of their pet squirrels that dart around their homes? This is where they live:
“Sarah Court: a ring of homes erected by the Mountainview Holdings Corporation. Cookie-cutter houses put up quick. Residents digging gardens will encounter broken bricks and wiring bales haphazardly strewn and covered with sod. In a town twenty minutes north of Niagara Falls. Grape and wine country. Crops harvested by itinerant Caribbean field hands who ride bicycles bundled in toques and fingerless gloves even in summertime. A town unfurling along Lake Ontario. Once so polluted, salmon developed pearlescent lesions on their skin. Ducks, pustules on their webbed feet. They seizured from contagions in their blood. Children were limited to swimming in ten-minute increments.”
Immediately we get a sense of this bedraggled community, not devoid of hope, or aspiration, but knocked down a few times, perhaps a bit skittish, gun-shy, sticking out their hands to shake, but expecting to get bit nonetheless.
A theme that is revisited in this collection is that of the father looking out for his child. One of the greatest fears a parent can have is that of their child getting hurt, abducted, or even worse, killed. Nobody wants to outlive their progeny. Late in the book is this scene, between Nicholas (Nick) the ex-boxer, and his son Dylan, a strange boy who is fond of absorbing personalities, one week a vampire, the next a stegosaurus or a mummy. This touching moment is all the more powerful when we get to a later scene involving suicide. It is one example of the powerful prose that Davidson employs over the course of this book:
“The poison ivy started as splotches on his thighs. Threads crept to his groin. He clawed it onto his stomach up to his armpits. The pediatrician prescribed calamine lotion. Dylan still had fits. Dad gave me lotion laced with topical anaesthetic.
I stood him in the bathtub, naked. My fingers went wherever ivy lurked: toes, thighs, belly. Felt odd doing that but he was so trusting. I worked lotion into his back. Cleft of his bum. I felt so close to him. A casual intimacy I thought could go on forever. To this day I’ll feel it: a phantom thack-thack on my bare palms. My fingertips so close to his heart.”
In addition to the constant threat of danger, the river of actions and consequences that runs through this book, there is humor, dark humor, and self-deprecating observations. Comedy is tragedy plus time, it has been said. And while the tragic remains close at hand at Sarah Court, its existence is not without laughter:
(Nick, father of Dylan)
“I’m amazed at my father’s ability to link unattached grievances into a single incoherent insult. No use getting my dander up. Arguing with him is like eating charcoal briquettes: stupid, pointless, and ultimately quite painful.”
(Fletcher Burger, father of Abby)
“My marriage was in shambles by then. My wife caught me sniffing the seat of my jeans to see whether they were clean enough to wear again and refused to kiss me for a week. She’d buy too many bananas and when they blackened throw them in the freezer to bake banana bread that never materialized. ‘Is it me,’ I’d go, ‘or is our freezer full of frozen gorilla fingers?’”
And it’s partly because of this humor that permeates this story that we’re able to take a breath, able to relax for a minute, to prepare for what comes next. There is a mixture of cruelty and mercy scattered across these tales, and it is the comedy that gives us room for the horrific.
In addition to the layers of déjà vu that come with seeing various stories from many different sides, the fairness of getting both sides of the coin, revealing the humanity in the greatest of mistakes, Davidson imparts great wisdom:
“Some say the only way to break such chains is to leave the place they’ve been forged. Yet every town is essentially a box with an open top, isn’t it? If you do not make the choice to step out of the box, well, can you really call it a trap?”
Craig Davidson has pulled off quite a feat with Sarah Court. He has told us a fascinating tale of interlinking stories, constantly showing us that life is always shades of gray, never just black and white. He has reminded us of the resiliency of the human spirit, and the generosity inherit within, even when we are riddled with defeats and beaten down, our failures often of our own doing, the consequences heavy and eternal. And he has given us laughter along the way, to keep us from weeping at the tragedies on the page. If the testimonials by such dark magicians as Chuck Palahniuk, Peter Straub, and Clive Barker can’t seal the deal, then nothing ever will. Go back to watching the squirrels.