Jeff Fearnside’s début story collection, Making Love While Levitating Three Feet in the Air, is rich in so many ways: in its deep explorations of diverse lives and experiences; in its immersion in place, which often becomes a character itself; in the subtle surprises of several tales—surprises that, retrospectively, feel completely earned and natural.
But one of my favorite aspects of the book is the way it explores the solo mission—certain characters’ efforts to find their way, largely alone, through difficult periods or situations in their lives.
In “Every Living Thing That Moves,” the sense of alienation comes from both circumstance and place. The central character, an intellectually curious and sensitive teenager, John, is misunderstood and berated by his abusive father, Cal, who seems to see John’s smarts as a threat. The setting of much of the story, the struggling family farm that John is on his way to inheriting, contributes to the feeling of isolation, as does the fact that John is an only child.
As one example of the father-son conflict, we learn that John, who once undertook a school project on sustainable agriculture, has recommended no-till farming to Cal. After trying no-till methods, Cal seems to blame John for the rot and waste in the fields—not the unusually wet weather. During one argument Cal says to John, “You’re always reading these books and coming up with these fancy ideas—you don’t have any respect for the way things have been done around here since way before you were born. Do you think you’re too good for us, huh?”
From his mother John learns that, unlike his father, his grandpa (Cal’s father) was a witty, sociable man who loved to read. She says, “I think he would have liked the young man you’ve turned out to be.” This sets up a larger sense of possibilities for John, and it seems to lift the limits Cal has been driven to impose upon his son. Toward the end of the story, John envisions an escape from these limits, and this reflection feels authentic for this time in his life and his ambitions. The fact that he can imagine such an escape ends the story on a hopeful note.
“Maps and Compasses” tells the story of another young man, seventeen-year-old Ryan McAllister, who, like John, is trying to find his own way despite—or perhaps because of—a fraught relationship with his father.
We accompany Ryan through a snowy Idaho mountainscape, as he tracks an old buck who has evaded hunters for years. As Ryan observes, “such an animal is a myth until it’s killed; only then does it become living, in the sense of being real.”
As he pursues the buck, Ryan reflects on how his father taught him to hunt, and on how his father changed after Ryan’s mother left the two of them several years before. After her departure, Ryan’s father turned to religion with a special zeal, which Ryan finds disturbing.
Ryan remembers when his father excoriated a fellow church member, Dupree, for taking just the antlers from a killed buck, instead of making use of the whole animal, butchering it for meat. Ryan’s father said to Dupree, “If I didn’t have the love of God in me, I’d put the fear of Him into you right now. I’d beat your ass right now if I didn’t love the lord.”
It seems that the more fervent the father has become about religion, the less Ryan has wanted to hunt with him, contributing to the sense that Ryan is not only hunting the buck, but also finding his way through life, alone.
Eventually, Ryan closes in on the elusive buck, and Fearnside’s description of the creature feels as mythic as the stories surrounding him. As Ryan observes, the animal carries
Although he’s skilled at hunting, Ryan doesn’t have luck on his side this time. His misfortune deepens when, soon after spotting the buck, another force of nature (one I don’t want to give away) intervenes, putting his life at stake and sending him on a spiritual, physical, and emotional journey beyond any he could have expected when setting off on the hunt. The experience transforms Ryan, and Fearnside describes this transformation with great insight and elegance.
Perhaps my favorite work in the collection is “Going for Broke,” which tells the story of Joe Suguro, a Japanese-American who is forced into an internment camp, along with his parents and older brother, Frank, during the Second World War. In the course of their internment, the Suguros lose the land they’d been farming, and their home, and they face significant prejudice and anger from local whites, a phenomenon that feels chillingly relevant today.
One thing that sustains Joe during these dark times is baseball, which he practices with his father throughout their years in the camp. The story of these years is interwoven with the tale of one pivotal 1949 game in which Joe, by then a hot-shot pitcher for the Nisei All-Stars, has a chance to prove himself to one key observer in the stands: a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
But Joe faces two major challenges: (1) the fact that his opponents are an all-white all-star team, and (2) “an unspoken agreement … as binding as a contract”—that at the time of the game, Japanese Americans aren’t allowed to play in the major leagues. Even so, the game is full of tension, thanks to Fearnside’s well-paced and vivid writing.
Also, as Fearnside skillfully interweaves the two story lines, he shows how Joe and his family and friends are made to reconsider and redefine what it is to be an American, a friend, an enemy, a winner. “Going for Broke” is great storytelling and so much more. (“Go for Broke,” incidentally, is the motto of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which Joe’s brother, Frank, goes off to join during the war. The layers of meaning in this motto, and its relevance to Joe’s story, become more and more apparent as the narrative unfolds.)
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Stories about coming of age—especially under unusually challenging circumstances
▪ Stories set outdoors, or in which setting is an especially important element
▪ Engaging fiction about baseball or other sports, such as The Natural by Bernard Malamud