The central characters in The Expense of a View, Polly Buckingham’s dark and sometimes surreal story collection, face the kinds of suffering that many of us, if we aren’t experiencing them ourselves, would rather turn away from: grief over the loss of a loved one, drug addiction, domestic violence, parental abandonment, mental illness, poverty. Buckingham’s stories immersed me so deeply in these characters’ mental, physical, and emotional states that the barriers between their worlds and mine seemed to dissolve, giving me insights into experiences I might otherwise feel—or seek—distance from.
Will, the central character of “Night Train,” is grieving the loss of his son, Jimmy, who just three weeks before, was killed in a freak highway accident. Since the accident, to “fill time,” Will has installed an underwater light in the bay by his Florida home. Nights, also to fill time, he drinks wine and watches the lit bay from his upstairs porch, waiting for the arrival of “curving silver fish”: snook.
Will’s grief is compounded by guilt over the fact that his last interaction with his son was a fight that Will started, angered that Jimmy had been playing his guitar too loudly for Will’s liking, too late into the evening—and that Jimmy had also been high. Staring into the bay, Will reflects on this fight and the tragedy that followed it, on earlier memories of his son, and on memories of his own father, who also had been a musician, one who drank, took pills, and, eventually, abandoned Will and his mother.
Buckingham makes Will’s memories of his father more vivid and immediate by taking us back in time, placing us in the point of view of young Will. And by deftly interweaving those flashbacks with memories of and reflections on Jimmy, we see the connections between Will’s dual losses.
In this story and many others, Buckingham draws on dreamlike or surreal imagery, often connected to the natural world. Will remembers his father telling him how fish from a certain spring, when taken from the water, gave off colors that “would float up into the air, colors thick as paint, colors so bright they might even stain your arms, your face.”
Will remembers, too, how Jimmy, as a child, said, “Daddy, I dreamed I was a fish with a lantern inside me.”
These memories and images raised questions for me: Was Will hoping that the light in the bay, and any snook that might appear, would bring back something of what he’d lost of his son or his father? Or trigger some important realization or insight about them or himself? I’m not sure, and I don’t really need to know. In the end, it was enough to spend these moments with Will and see his memories, experiences, and reflections embodied in the natural world.
Bodies of water and the ways in which they attract and affect us figure into several stories other than “Night Train.” In “My Doppelganger’s Arms,” the narrator, Robin, is drawn to a driftwood hutch by the water, in Oregon. From there, at the start of the story, she notices an aimless-looking woman wandering along the beach, a woman Robin later meets in the beach’s parking area. “[S]he looked about my age,” Robin observes. “In fact, she looked like someone who might be my close friend. Only perhaps she was in some trouble.” The stranger is barefoot, for one thing, and has no jacket or sweater to protect her from the growing chill.
As the two women strike up a conversation, we learn that Robin has recently moved to the area from Kansas. When the stranger—Mar—asks Robin why she has chosen to relocate to the place with “the highest suicide rate in the country,” Robin says, “I like the ocean. There’s no ocean in Topeka.”
It’s clear that the women feel an immediate connection, and, on Mar’s recommendation, they head to a nearby bar, with Mar wearing shoes and a sweater from Robin. Inside the bar, Mar explains how her recent forgetfulness has caused her to not show up for work.
Later, back at Robin’s place, Mar says, “I’ve been real confused. Things happen, and then I don’t remember them, except there’s always, oh, you know, a mark or something to let me know they happened.” (If you suspect that Mar is dealing with drug addiction, you are right.) When she tells Robin that she is afraid of being alone that night, Robin allows Mar to stay over, and they end up spending the next day together, winding up back at the beach and, later on, in the hut.
I don’t want to reveal much more of what happens from here, but I will say that the doppelganger angle suggested by the title plays out in disturbing and surprising ways that gave me some insight into what it might feel like to be dissociated from the ordinary world, and perhaps from oneself, through drugs or trauma. Buckingham’s writing about Robin’s experiences is darkly and strangely beautiful and, again, strongly connected to the natural world.
As disturbing as this collection is, it offers occasional glimmers of hope, and the fact that they emerge from such darkness makes them all the more intense.
The story “Festival” follows a young couple, Nick and Sheila, through an outdoor music and arts festival that doesn’t prove much fun for either one of them. That seems to have little to do with the festival and everything to do with the state of their lives: they are practically broke, sharing cramped living quarters with another young couple, and, most significantly, raising a newborn daughter they didn’t plan for.
Through most of the festival, Nick and Sheila argue, the conflict between them surely connected to the stress of their day-to-day lives. But toward the end of the story, Nick suggests one way that he and Sheila might move toward a better future. And the story ends on a moving note, as, on their bus ride home, Nick holds their baby daughter, Michelle:
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Insights into experiences of trauma or other life difficulties
▪ Writing that is strongly connected to place and to the natural world