March 12, 2012
You don’t have to read Jack Driscoll’s author’s blurb to know he’s a poet. Open The World of a Few Minutes Ago to any story—any sentence—and savor the rich language and rhythms, the words that sing on the page.
Driscoll is the author of four novels, four poetry books, and the short story collection he is probably best known for: Wanting Only To Be Heard. Best-selling author Brady Udall echoes the words of many writers I know when he says, “Jack Driscoll has long been one of this country’s best short story writers.” Despite Driscoll’s impressive critical acclaim–including the AWP Short Fiction Award, PEN/Nelson Algren Fiction Award, the Pushcart Editors’ Book Award, and multiple Pushcarts and Best American Short Story citations–he is not as famous as he should be.
I was lucky enough to work with Driscoll in the MFA program at Pacific University. While reading, it was fascinating to see how he put in practice the craft elements he tried to teach me, for instance, his “kind God theory” of compassion for characters, his attention to the sound of every word and phrase, and his insistence on starting a story with a bang. The Driscoll-isms that struck me the most in this book were voice, vocabulary, poetic rhythms and long lines, whiz-bang smarts given to both educated and uneducated characters, and empathy even for losers who shoot themselves in the foot.
In “This Season of Mercy,” a boy tells the story of his father, a whistle blower at a slaughterhouse who wears women’s clothes to a bar, gets in a fistfight, and lands in jail. The environment is downtrodden and menacing, but the language is heavenly and hopeful. How can we not root for people who speak like this: “We’d all wake up a step or two closer to our imminent selves, my mom’s upbeat turn of phrase in a crisis.” I want to live in a family where people talk like that!
“Saint Ours,” my favorite story, is told from the point of view of Charlene, a truck-stop waitress so smart it hurts. It features one of my favorite first lines, too: “Here’s what the guy I don’t live with anymore said: “Charlene, if you could only imagine yourself as a feral, teeth-bearing, timber wolf bitch in heat, then you and me—we’d be a whole lot better suited.”
Everything Charlene says is colorful and gutsy, the story dripping with voice and verbal surprise. “Spring hopes eternal,” Charlene says, turning a cliché on its head, “all things being unequal.”
Driscoll’s verbs are never ordinary; people don’t have children, they “hazard offspring.” His accumulation of lists can be Whitmanesque, as in Charlene’s “hapless, head-on, rent-to-own wreck of a marriage, for starters.” She describes her boss as “Venus flytrap all the way when it comes to late-night one-on-ones,” employing one of my favorite Driscoll-isms, adjectives or adjectival phrases that substitute for nouns, such as “wall-to-wall” and “scratch-offs.” The wordplay can be outright funny, as in “Listen to me, Miss Cum Laude. Forget about the I.V. Leagues, okay?” Charlene is trapped in many ways—by the low expectations of her upbringing and especially by an abusive husband she is fleeing—but Driscoll’s compassion for her and all his characters give these stories a large-hearted humanity and helps us embrace all possibilities for their futures. “Here I am,” Charlene says, “beaten up and down and sideways, but intact enough at thirty-five to believe, against the odds, that the happier outcome the human heart was meant to act on is still possible, maybe.”
The title story, “The World of a Few Minutes Ago,” one of the most lyrical, is a lovely mini coming-of-age tale starring not a teenager, but a septuagenarian. The event that triggers Clyde’s soul searching is his wife’s recent move into the spare bedroom.
Clyde is predisposed toward casting back, unapologetic about his musing. “Right now, nothing seems so improbable as the world of a few minutes ago,” he says. “But here we are, finally, looking back, and screw those self-anointed New Age gurus who minister otherwise.”
What he sees is a man who is “no stranger to sin, no model of moral reckoning,” who needlessly risked his life, as an AP photographer in war zones, carrying on three extra-marital affairs. In his new role as the one abandoned, his judgments soften. Of a former mistress, he says: “I referred to her . . . as a first-class dumb-ass ballbuster of a bitch . . . [but now] if I could I would take back every ardent, angry, wrong word I have ever uttered about her or about anyone I have ever loved.” In his new-found desire for closeness, he tries to understand his wife’s “inconsolable . . . murky reach inside.” The story ends with bulbs in the earth, “an image of things long lost bursting back again and again into this earthly world.” Driscoll’s eloquent compassion for a man who for decades has been unfaithful, neglectful, and judgmental allows us to believe it is never too late to come of age.
The writer in me delights in the stylistic innovation of this collection. But the reader in me is moved by the book’s moral ambiguity, gritty drama, and startling humor. I wouldn’t be surprised if The World According to a Few Minutes Ago were nominated by a National Book Award and reissued by a major commercial press, as was Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story collection, also published by Wayne State University Press.
Driscoll deserves nothing less. He is a master of the short story, a prose stylist with the rhythms of a musician and the vocabulary of a poet, a distinctive voice every writer (and every reader) should learn from.