June 21, 2017
Jack Driscoll is one of the most respected short story writers working today. He is not the most famous, but he is widely admired, especially among writers, as a craftsman whose work serves as a model for other writers to follow. The appeal is clear—his enormous compassion for his flawed characters; his gift for shining the spotlight on the kind of people and places that are so often overlooked both in literature and life; and his distinctive voice, which nimbly tightropes between high and low, vernacular and lyrical, comic and wise. His characters say things like “Christ on a bike” and “piss in one hand and wish in another and see which one fills first.” But their insights and vocabulary can also fly to great heights. “The idea of a million pilgrims desperate to put a knee down in this nothing town suddenly adjacent to God and heaven confounds even the dreamer in me,” says one of the book’s precociously eloquent adolescents.
In The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot, Driscoll’s big-hearted ability to make us love the troubled screw-ups he creates is on fine display. He finds the humanity in petty criminals, sarcastic teenage kleptomaniacs, and desperate divorcees. He makes us root for boys with names like Priest or Darwin or girls called Trinity or Novella—often living with one parent, while the other languishes in jail. Sometimes it’s the mother’s boyfriend or the protagonist who finds herself on the wrong side of the law, but the focus of the story is on their chances to claw themselves out of their “nowhere” lives, not repeat their parents’ mistakes, and find their better selves. They long to “shit-can” their “spirit-killing, grind-it-out jobs” or they dream of seeing the Himalayas. We feel their cramped circumstances and cheer them on as they sneak peeks of a bigger world beyond their “prefab repos” and double shifts at the Honcho or Twisted Antlers.
Driscoll makes us care for the waitresses and warehouse workers, those scarred by fire or bad luck or made murderous by rejected small business loans, the mother who spends so much time in the water she is “part reptile,” the father who cut short his potential major league baseball career by accidentally guillotining his arm during a science project, or the former boxer scheming to rescue (or kidnap?) his ex-girlfriend’s son. His characters are so smart and reflective that we empathize with them, even when they’re engaged in fist fights, pot growing, or breaking and entering. The world Driscoll creates is so vivid and real that we find ourselves deeply connected with con men who say things like, “Now remember, you just stand there, right next to me, and act like you’re about to cry,” and broken women, like Marjorie, a “casualty of late-stage divorce and addiction to loneliness.”
These characters live modestly, near reservations and casinos and turnip fields covered in snow. The stories take us to austere outposts in northern Michigan, “so remote you can’t even locate [their] position on a USGS map,” “boom towns that never did,” where “even the richest among us was at least another half-dozen lifetimes away from that first million, and the next actual town with bowling alleys and movie theaters and without its name painted across a water tower [is] 60 miles distant.” It’s a world of brutal discomfort, where winter is endless and the plows don’t always find the roads. It’s also a place of awe-inspiring beauty, where “the Northern Lights reflect heavenward and back, like dueling mirrors of endless ocean and sky.”
Like all Driscoll’s stories, the ones in this brilliant new collection beg to be read aloud. This is one of the highest compliments I can pay to a work of prose—that its language is so rich, its rhythms so musical, its voice so dense that it deserves to be savored, word for word, like poetry. It is no surprise that Driscoll knows how to make words sing. He started his literary career as a poet, and several of his 11 books are collections of poetry.
On a recent hour-long drive I decided to introduce my family to Driscoll’s latest book by reading it aloud to them. I chose “This Story” first, the winner of the Pushcart Prize. It opens with Fritzi’s mother clipping articles about miracles and banking on one happening in their town, hoping someone discovers “a visage of Christ in a lint screen at the local Laundromat.” But we later discover that a miracle is what Fritzi’s father will need, if he wants to get his sentence overturned from first-degree manslaughter to self-defense.
This story is a perfect illustration of Driscoll’s gifts. Fifteen-year-old Fritzi is “one-quarter Ottawa on [his] dad’s side” and his two friends from the reservation live somewhere so unpopulated the best way to get around is by snowshoe or snowmobile.
How Fritzi describes his favorite pastime gives us an example of Driscoll’s gorgeous prose. Fritzi and his buddies smoke in a car called Fury, “up on blocks, transmission shot and hubs painted purple. Rear risers but no fires, and snow up to both doors so we have to crawl inside, like it’s an igloo or a fort, and always with some half-wrapped notion of someday firing it alive and driving hell-bent away.” Fritzi is on a mission to scare Billy Bigelow, his mother’s boyfriend, away from her, which he envisions as a rescue maneuver, for her own good. He and his friends secretly stalk him on a snowmobile that leaves no tracks because they attached a “horsehair tail to the ass-end.” As they plot against Bobby, Fritzi remembers his father’s lessons to never back down. Never turn back. Man up.
But Driscoll loves his characters, so he gives us hope at the end. Fritzi starts to see his father’s incarceration as a cautionary tale. “Like father, like son, and it takes only a matter of seconds for me to calculate that weeks or months or years from now I might own up that ‘Here, overtaken by rage and revenge, is where I pummeled and perhaps maimed or even killed a man.’” So he sneaks away, into the snow drifts, towards a future, we hope, with more freedom, grace, and forgiveness.
Driscoll is known for his teaching as well as his writing, and “The Alchemist’s Apprentice” is dedicated to one of his most famous former students, Vince Gilligan, creator of the TV series “Breaking Bad.” How can you resist a story that begins with a line like this: “My mom says she hasn’t the foggiest and that wherever Jimmy Creedy, her stay-over boyfriend, heisted all those tracheotomy tubes is anybody’s guess.”
Even if, unlike me, you don’t relish reading aloud, I urge you to linger on every sentence, hearing the words in your head—their variations in speed and diction, their mix of epiphany and slangy analogy. The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot is filled with vivid characters and compelling plots, but, in the end, it’s the language that makes a Jack Driscoll story a Jack Driscoll story. Which, as many would agree, is the best kind of story there is.