Reviewed: The Farther Shore
by Rob Davidson
(Bear Star Press, 2012)
How do you continue, let alone fix, your life after irrevocable damage has been done to your pride and conscience? In just under one hundred and fifty pages, The Farther Shore, the latest collection of short stories by Rob Davidson, discloses the inner workings of people—dreamers, quitters, the pragmatic, and the insecure—who are dealing with just that issue.
Midwest born and educated, Davidson now resides in Chico, California, a setting that he borrows for most of the stories in The Farther Shore. This book won’t have you cheering (sorry, no triumphantly happy endings here), but there’s an ineffable something that provides a high degree of familiarity with the protagonists in all nine stories. Davidson’s real-life tone, as Steve Yarbrough puts it, has “the ability to make you care deeply about his characters. They become, for all their occasional quirkiness, as real as the folks next door.” But don’t mistake his simple and straightforward style for banal. The stories are easy to read, but each grows increasingly difficult to digest. We’re dealing largely with unwanted pregnancies, dwindling marriages, and failed or half-hearted parenting (not to mention alcoholism, abortion, and illicit student-teacher affairs). But his approach is refreshing, bereft of judgment and contempt—no small feat for subjects of such gravity.
Over half of the vignettes feature unhappy men and women (most of whom are inept communicators) in relationships that raise suspicious eyebrows and beg the question: Why are you doing this to yourself? But that’s what’s so gripping about the book. We want to see how people like us handle situations that we either know all too well or are terrified to encounter.
Each story is a snapshot, revealing just enough to grasp what makes the characters tick. In “The Student,” a professor is studying a particularly fitting T. S. Eliot poem for his doctorate preliminary exams:
He stopped in the middle of the floor and did a series of knee deep bends, then ran in place for half a minute. The coffee machine in the corner gurgled contentedly, full again. He muttered to himself: The Burial of the Dead; The Fire Sermon; Death by Water; What the Thunder Said. He thought for a moment. He walked over to the desk and hastily flipped through the onion-skin pages.
A Game of Chess.
“God damn it!” he snapped, slapping at the thick book. Sometimes he wanted to hurl it out the window.
Forget early twentieth century London—this professor’s life is the real wasteland. He hopelessly crams for his tests, disregards thesis deadlines, and has little over five hundred dollars in his bank account. However, it’s a knock on the door that brings the most disheartening news of all, and the four simple words of his student lover, “I’m ten days late,” catapult this story deep into your conscience. These stories are terrifyingly, well, human.
Davidson’s characters get under your skin. With most page turns, they lie, they manipulate, they disappoint, lashing out caustic jabs, jealous suspicions, and haughty remarks. An infuriating instance in “Tell Me Where You Are,” lingers in particular:
Peterson gave her a quick once-over: a tall woman with great legs and a high, tight bust. He tried to remember the last time she’d dressed like that for him…. She and her classmate had been meeting on Saturday afternoons, working on their project. She often stayed late, missing dinner at home.
He said, “You look like a million bucks.”
“Do I look like I want to make a million bucks? Not that an English professor knows about making money.” She smiled facetiously. “Kidding! You know that. Give me a kiss. Here,” she said, pointing to a spot beside her mouth. He leaned in and pecked her on the cheek. Her perfume smelled brassy and sharp—a new scent, not one he recognized.
Later that night, Peterson takes it upon himself to hunt down his wife, abandoning his five-year-old daughter in the van to sleep alone while he dips in and out of every bar downtown. The moral implications of what Peterson decides to do when his wife finally does stumble back through the front door of their home at two a.m.—misaligned skirt zipper and all—weigh heavily on the reader.
A younger voice kicks off the narration in “My Favorite Disaster.” It belongs to a kid whom you might mistake for someone uncommonly conscientious for his age—but he’s not. He’s just a regular fourth grader experiencing something not unlike what most of us experienced in our formative years. His story details the internal (and, near the end, physical) struggle of whether to back up his popular best friend who is bullying the nerd or take a risky and unprecedented stand for the underdog. When he finally decides which path to take, his best friend isn’t having it:
He took my head in his meaty hands and smashed the back of my skull against the ground like it was a coconut. Then he leaned forward, put his forearm across my windpipe and pressed down. I couldn’t breathe. My lungs felt like two hot burning bags, ready to explode…. His face loomed over mine, his eyes wide and manic, teeth bared. I gasped in a futile effort to draw a clear breath. I thought my eyes would pop out of my head.
This heart-wrenching and inherently complex situation is told with childlike simplicity. Davidson conveys the fibers of his characters’ beings while toeing the delicate line of raising tough questions and avoiding clichés.
The book strikes an empathic chord that makes you wish desperately for the characters to get their lives together. And, to borrow from the opening vignette, their tears, frustrations, and small victories might just crack open the door of your heart, “willing it to open an inch more. To stop asking cynical questions of the world. To be raw and unafraid.”