One of the fiction-writing super powers I admire most is the ability to inhabit a wide range of characters and worlds, and to write about each of them with great empathy and understanding. In her story collection This Far Isn’t Far Enough, Lynn Sloan shows a special gift in this regard. She immerses us in the lives of everyone from a deceived and disillusioned widow, to an anxious soldier pulled into a possibly criminal scheme, to a worried mother of an aspiring prizefighter. As Sloan explores the inner and outer and conflicts that these characters face, she does so with deep feeling and insight.
In “Bird,” the recently widowed main character, Martha, is left to cope with a house that is literally falling apart around her, and with unpleasant memories of her marriage, which wasn’t in much better condition. That Martha’s late husband, Owen, ran a hardware store makes the poor condition of the home seem especially cruel—until certain complications in their relationship come to light.
We learn that years before, Martha had been carrying on an affair with a local car dealer, Glenn Muncie, until Owen discovered the infidelity and put an end to it. But this never tamps down Martha’s feelings for Glenn, who remains the great love of her life, even after his death. Remembering him, Martha observes, “She’d thought that all the molecules in her body had been re-aligned along an axis that was tilted permanently toward him.”
Shortly after Owen’s death, Martha decides to pay Glenn’s widow a visit. It isn’t until Martha arrives at the widow’s place that she realizes the purpose of her trip: “to find something” of Glenn. What she discovers, though, is nothing she could have predicted: it destroys both her idealized vision of her relationship with Glenn and certain assumptions about Owen.
Not wanting to reveal too much, I’ll just say that the twists in this story feel both surprising and entirely believable. They also reveal an important truth: that sometimes it’s best for the dead to take secrets with them entirely; for their survivors, any remaining hints of these secrets can be crueler than being left completely in the dark.
Like “Bird,” “The Gold Spoon” considers the gap between what the living can know and the truths that the dead take with them. The story begins with a young girl receiving the spoon of the title, which was a possession of her uncle, Virgil Griffin, until he was killed in the Second World War. To her, the spoon is a glittery mystery, possibly dropped from heaven. But because this story, in contrast to “Bird,” takes us back in time and into the point of view of the dead (in this case, Virgil) we learn the whole dark truth behind this gift.
Tragically, Virgil nearly survives his service as an Infantry private. His story begins not long after VE day, at a military base in Austria. There, under a sergeant’s orders, Virgil reluctantly takes part in a mission to remove valuables from a “property control warehouse” and to deliver them to a commanding officer’s quarters. He believes, with good reason, that the mission is actually a theft and that disobeying the sergeant’s orders, or reporting them to other superiors, could have dangerous–perhaps even fatal–consequences.
The items in the warehouse were confiscated from the Nazis, and one aspect of the story that I found especially moving was Virgil’s reactions to what he finds there. One item he encounters is a steamer trunk “plastered with stickers from fancy resorts.” Curious about the owner who’d stayed at such “swanky” places, Virgil opens the trunk and, after some rummaging, discovers a small leather case. After some hesitation, he opens the case and finds a gold chain with a Star of David.
Seeing the necklace reminds Virgil of his squad’s encounter with a woman at an all-but-destroyed farm in Germany. He remembers her stern observation of him and the other men: “her stillness seemed to swell into an indictment.” Then Virgil recalls what his captain had said of the woman: “She might be Jewish. They can’t tell the difference between us and the Nazi’s.” After this recollection,
The mystery that this necklace presents to Virgil echoes the mystery that the gold spoon becomes to his survivors. It turns out that he acquires the spoon somewhat accidentally: it had slipped out of one of the packages that he, the sergeant, and one of the sergeant’s lackeys transferred from the warehouse to a couple of jeeps, for delivery to the CO’s quarters. Virgil pockets the spoon as possible evidence of the theft he suspects, but his death (the details of which I won’t reveal) puts this item’s fate beyond his control.
Both the spoon and the items that Virgil discovers in the warehouse made me think of the stories, trifling to tragic, that surely surround all possessions with any history. I love how Sloan invites us to consider the consequences, good and ill, of such stories remaining locked in the past.
Perhaps my favorite story in the collection is “The Sweet Collapse of the Feeble,” whose central character—I’ll call her “Momma,” as her daughter does—has reached an uncomfortable junction between the present and the past. The present (and future) is represented by Momma’s daughter, Civility, who is training hard to realize her dream of becoming a prizefighter, to Momma’s chagrin. The past is represented by Momma’s own mother, Bernice, who remains a strong, judgmental presence in Momma’s life, though she’s been dead for some time. Bernice’s presence isn’t just psychological; her ashes occupy a gold plastic urn that sits atop Momma’ s refrigerator.
Sloan conveys Momma’s motherly worries with feeling and humor. Consider Momma’s reflection on Civility, who recently returned from the army:
Momma is certain that Bernice would disapprove of Civility’s boxing, and of Civility’s “no-account” trainer, Fletcher. For her part, Civility is troubled by the hold that Bernice still has over Momma. Early in the story, she remarks to her mother, “I sure hated how [Bernice] ran roughshod over you. … And here she is, long dead, and you’re still listening to her, aren’t you?”
To Civility, the fact that Bernice’s ashes remain on Momma’s fridge isn’t just a matter of procrastination. She tries to convince Momma that it’s time to bury the ashes and also the psychological burden that Bernice has imposed for years.
Sloan vividly and humorously portrays the mutual worrying and well-intentioned disagreements that often figure into the relationships between mothers and grown daughters. And the story’s ending reveals a truth about such tensions: although they may never disappear entirely, they can sometimes lead to moments of deep understanding, and love.
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Empathic, insightful stories about a wide range of characters and situations
▪ Stories featuring strong female characters
▪ Stories about coping with conflict, loss, or unexpected developments