Many of the tales in Jan English Leary’s profound, heartfelt story collection, Skating on the Vertical, center on characters who have reached pivotal points in their lives and are trying to figure out next steps, and also themselves. Leary gives the complexity of such turning points its due, immersing us in the soul-searching, self-doubt, and mistakes that are natural—sometimes inevitable—during times of change, difficulty, or discovery.
Because all the stories in Skating on the Vertical are so powerful and resonant, it was hard for me to choose which ones to focus on in this review. To my mind, there wasn’t an off story in the book. So here, I’ll focus on a few stories that give a sense of the range and depth of this fine collection.
The opening story, “Eunuchs,” centers on a new instructor at an elite boarding school, Deighton Hall. This instructor, Natalie, is tasked with teaching a remedial English course for nonnative speakers, and she learns that this course is “her test as a first-year teacher, her trial by fire”:
For Natalie, the most challenging student in this course is Pak Jeong, a pariah even among this class of outcasts, “themselves strangers to American boarding school culture.” Compared with his classmates, Jeong is having a harder time adjusting academically and culturally to life at Deighton Hall, and Natalie does everything she can to help him overcome these difficulties: “She wanted to help Jeong lose the Lord of the Rings backpack and the habit of buttoning his shirt up to the top, to bathe more regularly, and, in general, to imitate the students around him more.” (“Eunuch,” incidentally, is one remedial student’s mispronunciation of “unique,” and it becomes a teasing nickname for Jeong, one he turns to his own purposes at the end of the story.)
We learn that Natalie is also a stranger to boarding school culture, “a rare Midwesterner among eastern preppies,” and she finds herself alienated from most students and faculty, who appear to be naturally attuned to Deighton Hall’s “innate system of social cues for which she hadn’t found the key.” While other faculty seem ready to give up on Jeong and let him flunk out, Natalie argues for offering him more support and, therefore (to her mind, at least), a greater chance at success.
In her efforts to support and guide Jeong, Natalie seems to be pulling for herself as much as for him, a fellow underdog. And when life at Deighton reaches a crisis point for him (I won’t give away the details), it does for her, too. Toward the end of the story, Jeong takes power over his situation at Deighton, even as he fails spectacularly by the standards of the school, and the moment is revelatory, not just for him but also for Natalie. The close of the story feels both surprising and inevitable, and it’s incredibly satisfying.
Alienation also features in the title story of the collection, “Skating on the Vertical.” The central character, Nate, seems far from adjusting to life in high school, which he has just started, and his home life offers little comfort. His older brother, David, to whom Nate is very close, has recently left for college, and Nate feels distanced from his father, who, having lost his job, has immersed himself in television and drinking, to the exclusion of almost everything else, including looking for work. “David was gone now,” Nate thinks, “but it seemed [Nate’s] dad was missing too, as if a big chunk had been taken out of the family.”
One reliable form of escape from these difficulties is skateboarding:
This hobby also allows Nate to connect with fellow skateboarders. He meets up with them regularly at the town’s gazebo, where they try new stunts and just hang out. Yet Nate’s connections to these other kids feel tenuous, subject to the constant shifts in status and allegiance that are typical of teen cliques.
An emerging difference between Nate and the other skateboarders concerns their attitude toward the town’s “only homeless man,” Sam. Sam has always been friendly to Nate, just as he was to David, and Nate regards Sam with a mixture of sympathy and pity. Nate has learned that Sam once had a job, house, and family. But, like Nate’s father, Sam lost his job and, later on, everything other than the belongings he’s stashed in the grocery cart he pushes around town.
In contrast to Nate, his skateboarding friends show no sympathy for Sam. In fact, they mock him, calling him “Chester the Molester.” When Nate refuses to go along with these insults, and with a plan to vandalize Sam’s cart, he is all but cast out of the group, deepening his feelings of loneliness and alienation. Later, when Nate gets an opportunity to show his friends that he can be as cruel as any of them, he takes advantage of it, to Sam’s detriment.
But that isn’t the end of the story. Troubled by the harm done to Sam, and by the divide between himself and his father, Nate tries to make a counterbalancing sacrifice of his own, one that can’t possibly succeed, that will only cause more destruction and widen the divide. But he seems unaware of such consequences; he is focused on the moment at hand and its redemptive possibilities. Leary captures this moment, and Nate’s pain, with precision and feeling.
Leary also writes beautifully and perceptively about loss. Her story “Talisman,” though one of the shortest in the collection, packs an emotional wallop. “Talisman” shifts between the points of view of two parents who have just lost a child through miscarriage, showing the ways in which they mourn separately, in a kind of isolation, though they continue to live under the same roof. At times, they misunderstand each other’s feelings, deepening that sense of isolation.
Yet at the end of the story, a giraffe rattle they’d bought for the child, “the talisman that couldn’t guarantee safe passage into this world,” brings them together in a way no words could.
In this and other stories in Skating on the Vertical, Leary has such feeling for her characters, bringing us into the center of their lives, the conflicts they face, and the emotions they experience as a result. In other words, she makes these characters remarkably, and often heart-rendingly, real.
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Stories about characters at turning points in their lives
▪ Stories about conflicts in personal relationships
▪ Works by masters of the short-story form, such as Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, and John Cheever