Thirteen stories/essays paint a nostalgic portrait of a family that, despite a certain intimacy, feels very far away.
“I fear, as much as a I desire, this inheritance,” our narrator says near the close of Brown’s slight fifth collection (What Keeps Me Here, 1996, etc.). “I want to keep what they have given me, I want to rid myself of it.” You can’t tell whether the intent here is essay or fiction—a good deal is left out of the tales that a label of truth might fill in quite nicely. In “Learning to See,” for example, a youthful deformed eye, aimed directly back into the narrator’s head, comes to stand for introspection, nostalgia, and regret. “The Fish” is made up of a distant father’s memories, having to do with fishing, but will he be man enough to set free the one that didn’t get away? A nearly standardized friendship at summer camp (“Nancy Booth, Wherever You Are”) leads to the self-helpy moral: “I want to tell her I survived and I am happy now. I want to tell her I am grateful,” while sexual emergence is chronicled in the lust our narrator feels for a teacher in “A Vision,” an infatuation that takes on a dreamy, mystical dimension. “The Smokers” aspires to little more than a family history given in narrow focus on the act of smoking, and “An Element” takes a similar tack around water as a concept, while “My Mother’s Body” a matter-of-fact account of the rituals of attending to a corpse. Brown takes a step backward here with what feels like storytelling indecisiveness. As fiction, these pieces are missing something critical that’s nevertheless hard to pinpoint—like puzzle dioramas whose solution is to find what’s wrong or missing in the picture.
Still, the emotion here is real, if obscured and muted by a cloud of emotion.