Bookended by sections of memoir and history, these four short stories give a vivid picture of Oklahoma past and near-present.
Reiswig (Water Boy, 2012, etc.) was raised in Oklahoma and came of age in the 1950s. The first portion of memoir tells of life on the farm for Reiswig when he was a boy following in his father’s footsteps. It culminates with his initiation in castrating a young bull, an act that leaves him dizzy and burdened with new wisdom he can’t yet comprehend. “The Box Supper” features a boy of about the same age and a vaguely menacing character named Dootie Poor. Sexual tensions are writhing just below the surface at an innocent-seeming school fundraiser. Again, this boy knows without really knowing that things are not as they seem. In fact, all the short stories basically concern a boy about to discover himself; sometimes he is referred to as “the boy,” and his parents are “the man” and “the woman,” giving the stories a reverberating universality. In “Two-Door Hardtop,” Dean’s uncle Bernie, about to fight in Korea, buys a brand-new Ford Crown Victoria and entrusts it to Dean (who can’t even drive yet) for the duration. But a very different—shellshocked—Bernie comes home and is never whole and sound again. When Bernie eventually sells the car, Dean feels betrayed. “Fair Game” is a punning title referring to high school football, rivalries and even bird hunting. In “Bright Angel Trail,” family history and dynamics are exposed while the vacationing family travels a desperate hike down that titular trail in the Grand Canyon. The closing memoir section relates the Reiswig family history, starting when they were “Volga Germans” in Russia in the 18th century and then early settlers of the Oklahoma Panhandle, living through the Dust Bowl and other trying times. They were tough people living in an elemental landscape. Reiswig writes clearly and well in a style as simple and open as the high plains, giving readers the Oklahoma of fundamentalist religion, fanatical high school sports and all the things that hold people together through their hardscrabble existences. You don’t have to be an Okie to appreciate that.
Good reads to be pondered over.