Built to be Broken: A Review of Songs for the Deaf by John Henry Fleming

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Songs for the Deaf
by John Henry Fleming
Burrow Press, 2014
172 pages, $15
Reviewed by Nickalus Rupert

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With eleven well-crafted short fiction stories, Songs for the Deaf establishes John Henry Fleming as heir apparent to the legacy of American satire from authors like Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and more recently, George Saunders. Though Fleming pays his predecessors their dues, his “songs” also expand beyond the bounds of conventional American humor and satire.

Like Saunders, Fleming favors downtrodden and marginalized characters. The title story, “Song for the Deaf” introduces us to Jeremy Jones, a young man so bland he’s “beneath detection even by the bullies.” In “A Charmed Life,” we get the hard-luck case of an unnamed frontier-era protagonist whose father “was a disgraced steamboat pilot with a knack for grounding boats and destroying docks” and whose mother was “the thin-lipped illegitimate daughter of a beefy prostitute.” In “The Day of Our Lord’s Triumph,” a middle school nobody makes the transition from schoolyard punching bag to deity, while “Coward,” with a surreptitious nod to Tim O’Brien, depicts a dishonorably-discharged Vietnam veteran who bails out of the war and struggles to find his place in post-war society.

Collectively, Fleming’s stories almost invariably hold the promise of redemption for their built-to-be-broken characters. Like Saunders, however, Fleming sidesteps those forms of suffering which devolve into authorial cynicism. Characters in Songs endure Sisyphean burdens, but more often than not their struggles lead them to fruitful revelations. Though at times this motif lends a certain thematic predictability to Fleming’s tales, that predictability does little to diminish the reading experience. Because each character speaks from such a distinct tonal register, the stories remain fresh and engaging.

Many readers will appreciate the ways by which Fleming’s stories flirt with the conventions of contemporary satire. In “Weighing of the Heart” for instance, the James Dean-ish male protagonist must figure out what to do with a teenage hitchhiker who literally floats. “[He] Just bounces and glides, bounces and glides, like a ghost who’s just become a ghost and still doesn’t know it.” Readers may find parallels to Saunders’s fictional universe, where ghosts roam without explanation and dead aunts disentomb themselves. Fleming’s stories also burn especially well when they defy the bounds of realism and plausibility. Take “Chomolungma,” which highlights a delightfully dysfunctional family who, at Father’s behest, have paid $200,000 to scale Mt. Everest, relying on “discount Sherpas” in a misguided scheme to strengthen familial bonds. “Xenophilia” also embraces the zany. Here, Fleming’s third-person point-of-view bounces from one character to another, tracing the community-wide sexual awakening that an E.T. inspires in a small desert town. Fleming even indulges the reader’s curiosity by adopting the alien’s point-of-view.

In “The Day of Our Lord’s Triumph,” the main storyline is annotated by a chorus of followers who project godly qualities onto the rather pedestrian protagonist as he takes on the class jocks in a game of smash-mouth basketball. Fleming employs comment boxes, constructing what amounts to a play-by-play of clergical import, so that as we read the main narrative, we also gain access to a comical apocrypha. When the protagonist’s odds seem especially bleak, for instance, his followers’ bits of marginalia detail how this dire moment coincides with the “Festival of Doubt” they celebrate during post-triumph years. It’s a memorable story, and Fleming should be applauded for taking these kinds of formal risks.

In contrast, “Wind and Rain” tends to forego humor, following a protagonist who struggles to cope with the fallout of a rain-shrouded tragedy involving himself, his brother Louis, and a police officer. The story’s emotive conclusion moves us in much the same way some of Saunders’s strongest fiction does. In this story and others, Fleming’s command of sensory detail and atmospherics is superb. Take, for example, the protagonist’s address to Louis as he remembers the night of the traumatic incident:

There was no breeze that night in the rain. Can you see that? There’s lots of rain and I guess you can call it a storm. But there’s no wind at all. I know that because I see how the rain comes straight down. It bounces off the top of the cop’s slicker, off the top of his flashlight, off the top of his gun. Exactly off the top.

Fleming’s command of sensory detail is a pleasure to experience, and when he’s obliged to let out the reins, his prose rings and enchants with an incantatory power that few writers possess. He knows how to tune the cadence of his sentences to fit the collection’s dynamic storytelling needs, and his prose finds an uncanny precision through evocative and plainspoken language.

In “Cloud Reader,” the heretical protagonist’s professional doubts find expression in his survey of the landscape:

That night, the wet breath of the plains grasses lifts out of the fields and descends on the town. Its citizens awake to thick gray blankets hanging heavy on the windows, the sunlight all but blocked. Neighbors haunt the streets. The known world diminished overnight, the encroaching mysteries a sudden reminder of the folly of knowing. Nothing, it seems, will ever be certain again.

Whereas another writer might have been content to punch up the absurdity of the cloud reader’s profession, Fleming empowers his protagonist with a voice as tragic as it is memorable.

A similar effect takes place in “Chomolungma.” In addition to the evocative sensory details, we get a sharp sense of Father’s misplaced awe for the rugged features of Everest:

The mountains are a huddled mass of white-robed gods, the upper-level winds blowing auras off their pointed skulls. The cold thin air dissolves like a wafer on the tongue. It’s like nothing back home, a lofty spirit-walk their bodies are privileged to have joined, if only for a few weeks.

Here, we have an immediate sense of the father’s interiority. In a short paragraph, Fleming demonstrates how Father idealizes the landscape without recognizing its impartiality, its disinterested capacity for cruelty, which will be visited later in the story.

Fleming’s prose also thrives in the less conspicuous places. In “Weighing of the Heart,” the unnamed protagonist places endless miles of desert highway between himself and an unspeakable event from his past. As a character, this lone wolf risks coming off as somewhat familiar, but to his credit, Fleming understands that even his protagonist’s more mundane observations should carry meaning: “I clear my throat and watch a dust devil whirl across the asphalt, carrying bugs and birds and small rodents to a new life elsewhere.” In a single well-crafted line, Fleming implies that it’s the narrator who desperately wishes to be swept up and carried to some new “elsewhere.” Moments like these speak volumes about Fleming’s attention to detail.

Fleming’s stories routinely transcend the trappings of satire, advancing with an elegance that often belies the humorous circumstances he writes about. Because they are so human, we rarely end up laughing at the expense of Fleming’s characters; rather, within them, we locate our flawed selves.

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About Author

Nickalus Rupert has spent most of his life along the Gulf Coast of Florida, where he spent years eking out a living as a musician and an adjunct instructor. Currently, he is an MFA Fellow at the University of Central Florida. His fiction has appeared in Prick of the Spindle and is forthcoming in WhiskeyPaper and Night Train.

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