Enduring the Indelible: A Review of David Surface’s Collection, TERRIBLE THINGS

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It is quite possible that David Surface has experienced terrible things, but it is just as likely that he has helped, or offered comfort to, those who’ve not only witnessed terrible things, but learned to endure.  “The things we do to each other that seem so big and terrible at the time don’t really matter that much in the end” — this coming from Surface’s unsettling, “Writings Found In a Red Notebook,” a story where names and mere memories are talismans against an inevitable humanitarian deterioration.  “Not sure if that’s supposed to be a comforting thought or something else.”

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While Surface’s work contains an incisive warmth, there is a soberly scientific calculation in his execution (it’s enjoyable observing how he provides predictive codes throughout his pieces).

NightscriptI first confronted one of Surface’s stories five years ago, “The Sound That the World Makes” having appeared in the inaugural installment of C.M. Muller’s annual, autumnal exhibition, Nightscript.  Two years later in 2017, Surface provided “Something You Leave Behind” to the anthology’s third volume.  (Both stories appear in Surface’s collection.) In addition to demonstrating a deft handling of how details are meted out within a narrative, I now notice that the two stories contain thematic double-helices which twine much of Surface’s work — namely, how time affects the fickle nexus of friendship, and the vacillating reciprocity in our more intimate relationships; and while these ordinary topics might certainly be dismissed as too mundane for readers seeking the glee of gore, Surface’s goal, as a craftsman, eclipses gore.  In Surface’s stories, he trades sloppy shock value for an almost Hippocratic ethos to ease the pain incurred by indelible damage.  

n3As for the altering phases of relationships, we can examine a passage from that latter-referenced tale, “Something You Leave Behind,” the action centering on the unsteady union of spouses Janet and Jack.  “[Janet had] noticed it before, but tonight it seemed worse, like he’d aged overnight. For a moment she believed that if she passed him on the street, she wouldn’t recognize him” — this coming as Jack divulges an unexpected confession.  “‘You remember what you said, when I left? You’re not the same man I married.’ He paused and swallowed. ‘Those things I did, when I left. I used to wonder … how could I do that? How could I do those things to you? I tried to think, but there’s nothing there … like it was someone else who did those things.’”  When Janet attempts to alter tack, Jack’s agitation increases. “‘No,’ he said, his voice becoming more urgent. ‘I mean … what if it was?  What if it was someone else?’”  The story reveals then an uneasy revelation.

The varying dynamics along friendships’ timeline also factors heavily into Surface’s fiction — think of more ominous, atmospheric interactions in the vein of The Big Chill.  “Plans change — that was how Jerry put it,” comes a line in “The Sound the World Makes.”  “The important thing, he said, was not to be so attached to your plans for the future that you can’t handle it when a whole different future arrives.”

In “Last Ride of the Night,” Surface captures both the ramifications of shared wounds as he animates his characters quite literally down memory lane, fog-filled as it may be.  “I wanted the shock of contradiction,” his protagonist admits, “to have the flaws and falsehoods in my memory confirmed and held up to my face. I knew what I remembered and I wanted to be wrong.”

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The collection’s title story calls to mind moments from T.E.D. Klein’s, “Petey,” while framing the tale with both an “altered perspective” and an anthropological detachment in the analytical mode of more contemporary writers like Matt Cardin.

Yet it is in the story “Intruders” that distills not only Surface’s skill, but partially telegraphs his literary agenda.  In it, we have a teacher whose young charges are just beginning to confront the unpredictable realities of school-targeted violence.  Surface’s protagonist-teacher (I’ll avoid using the term “educator,” as it both limits and misses the point of what real teachers actually do) demonstrates the growing the claustrophobia of our increasingly violent climate, while delineating the tension of this occupation’s obligations:  the daily responsibility to maintain the safety of the vulnerable; the gravity of potential; and the ramifications of lost opportunity.  What is vigilance?, asks Surface.  What is overreaction? 

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It’s a compliment that the story calls to mind moments from Stephen King’s “Sometimes They Come Back,” though progresses beyond it in its all-embracing sympathies.  “Don’t lie to them,” comes a particularly haunting line from the story. “They’ll know.” It’s an instruction directed at both the students in his narrative and his audience facing the page.  David Surface is, even in his half-truths, being authentic.

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Knowing very little of the man aside from the warmth and intellect reflected in his fiction — and how his aesthetic has affected me — I’ve come to gain a sense that Mr. Surface, as a writer, operates like a war-torn combat medic.  As the thirteen stories in his collection, Terrible Things deftly demonstrates, in the trauma unit of tale-telling, David Surface is unable to supply too many precious answers, rather he provides verbal sutures to the damaged and heart-sick, patching us up the best he can.

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A Celebration of the Unsettling: Gordon B. White’s Debut Collection: AS SUMMER’S MASK SLIPS AND OTHER DISRUPTIONS

 

I have it on dependable authority that Gordon B. White maintains a daily regimen of long-hand writing exercises (you might glimpse a mention of this practice by way of some of his social-media posts). It’s a presumption, but I can’t help but consider that this pen-to-paper practice (diurnal journaling not being a unique task for many writers, though possibly an exhaustive disciplinary tactic to civilian sensibilities) has been a galvanizing ingredient in the syllable-by-syllable precision of White’s fiction.
“Writing exercises are maps, not the destination,” writes novelist Bret Anthony Johnston. “They are the keys to the castle, not the castle itself.” As such, Gordon B. White reveals himself as both cartographer and locksmith in his debut collection, As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions.
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A coiling of quality and control, White’s collection houses a reverence for language and style, and showcases a devotion to the expansive spectrum of influence — a fictive continuum ranging from an intellectual, arthouse aesthetic to Creepshow escapism. White flexes enough of a scribbler’s muscle to make the collection, in its aggregate, subtlety instructive — pay attention to not only how he’s crafted the tales, but how (and perhaps his editorial collaborators) have elected to structure the collection.

The first half of the collection is threaded with themes of psychological precariousness and the necrotic logic of religious delusions; we abrade here too glimpses of deteriorative mental states and the gloomy aspects of domestic relationships.

The collection’s opener, “Hair Shirt Drag,” is a brief examination of social-sexual norms and a meditation on ritualized expectation — certainly, for our protagonist, but also for us as participants. A tale riddled with telegraphic pinpricks which act as an accretion for a final incantation: the story’s hue also functions as a reflection for White’s collection itself. “Words don’t mean nothing,” says the tale’s narrator. “It’s only intention that makes things happen.” White, however, is all too aware of the potency of words.

White’s initial acts also bear a sequence of shorter, flash-fiction pieces which successfully play like tonal interludes between stories (“But you were right. The Beast is coming”); likewise, further on readers will find “The Hollow,” a brief piece which works more like a well-defined sketch — a fermenting barm with all the characteristics of a fully-formed story eagerly waiting to be fed.

But by the second half, White quietly gives readers over to a series of more sober stories with an analysis of duality and the significance of altruistic paternality (which I’ll get back to in a few seconds).

Of note is “Open Fight Night at the Dirtbag Casino,” a poignant contemplation on the oxidizing qualities of revenge in the face of forfeited salvation. As short story collections are a useful tool for showcasing an array of creative capabilities, White demonstrates a variety of devices — on display here, a penchant for voice (“believe me, babies”) is shrewdly executed.

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I can’t help but subjectively project the possibility that this tale was borne out of White’s laborious ethos when it comes to his craft. “I don’t have a way to keep track of how many times we’ve done this,” admits the narrator, and it’s interesting, in a macro sense, to wonder at White’s back-to-the-drawing-board awareness — which all writers resignedly confront — as he repeatedly slips on the skin of would-be short-story protagonists. “You’re never the same train hitting the same wall, the same straw on the camel’s back … [y]ou just gotta keep spinning, again and again, to see where it lands.” White’s violent piece concludes with a tenebrous and potent punch.

Opening, on the other hand, with a flurry of fistacuffs, is “Eight Affirmations For the Revolting Body, Confiscated From the Prisoners of Bunk 17.” Bound to a prison camp during an Us-versus-Them global war, the story hits satisfying dystopian notes while narratively balancing on razor-wire between horror and science-fiction. It’s scary and bleak, but closes on a bittersweet “note.”
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But it’s “The Buchanan Boys Ride Again” that breaks the thematic fever of the first half of the book. A sort of salute to 80s horror and stitched with action-comedy quips, my main nit is a lack of clarity in the “creature” component’s explanation, the story, in commendable capacity, suffers from the same symptom as “The Hollow”: the skeletal system clearly urges expansion.
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“The Buchanan Boys” is infused with enjoyable humor, but the underpinning preoccupation is clear and quite touching: the (ostensibly mundane) magnitude of fathers.

And while readers will glean as much in the closing sequences of stories, the collection’s dedication page is succinctly poignant. “For my father James — a teller of tales and gone too soon.” Gone, yes, but White has ensured that the man’s presence, and influential legacy, reverently resonates on our page.
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Aided by a sluicing first-person execution, and imbued with themes of duality, loss, responsibility, the reflective “Birds of Passage” stands as the collection’s closer.  “As I myself grow older, I often think back to that night on the river. About how there’s a world around us, but beyond us, too. A world that takes things, changes them, but sometimes gives them back. All of it — all of it is ripples.”

The catchy cadences of Gordon B. White’s prose serve as stepping stones for readers crossing the pleasantly deceptive arteries of his disquieting narratives. As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions is an impressive exercise in precision, and a celebration of the unsettling.