By Elizabeth Geoghegan
Santa Fe Writers Project, 2019
224 pages, $12.25
Review by Bailey Drumm
Let Elizabeth Geoghegan’s provocative, poetic prose be your guide through eightball (SFWP, 2019), her collection of eight short stories that emphasize the different features that love, intimacy, desire, and lust can bring out in a person.
The collection makes a thematic statement about how women observe themselves differently in the presence of the men they desire. There is a strong sexual quality through most of these stories, and Geoghegan lets them play out with different characters in different settings all over the globe.
The first part of the collection follows artists (in many senses), and their journeys through different stages of different relationships: In “Tree Boy,” the narrator develops feelings for an art student, which cause her to pick herself apart figuring out how to get Tree Boy to desire her. She dissects pictures of herself, claiming “I slice the images into pieces and reconfigure them, trying to turn myself into someone else.” While the emotions are subtle, the language is graphic, and juts the plot forward.
This gets built on in “The Violet Hour,” where Violet yearns to be a down-to-earth-granola-being like her boyfriend Billy, who she chases all the way to Thailand but then ends up alone after a tsunami wave, reflecting on the veils over their relationship. Geoghegan’s language is like waves, pulling the reader deep into Violet with her descriptions, and releasing us to also view the world around her. With Violet, we see what things are versus what we want them to be.
Starting at “A Roman Story,” and continuing through “eightball,” there is a shift in the tone of the stories, from bewildered sexual exploration to brusque self-awareness, but Geoghegan’s writing is so cohesive that the texture of the stories remains the same. She can be in the reader’s face one minute with a sentence like “I fucked Dog Boy because I hated his girlfriend’s shoes,” and turnaround with another like, “I soon discover Sylvie has indeed commandeered the barstool we’d reconnoitered, but who do you think is stationed upon it?” — it’s colloquial, yet unafraid of contrasting vocabulary, like an intellect narrating comfortably to a group of friends.
“Mother’s Day,” opens with a Mrs. Dalloway-inspired single-sentence scene that follows its unnamed narrator, who has an unwanted pregnancy through romantic Paris while denying us any sense of love or warmth:
“Or on that early morning, discovering it was French Mother’s Day, and buying peonies, even though she had no mother to bring them to — might never be a mother herself — longing for the Buckeye Belles, dark menstrual blood and closed tight as fists, but something wouldn’t let her buy them, and she settled for a few pale pink stems, the florist whistling and wrapping them in crisp brown craft paper, torn in even squares from a large cylinder and tied shut with raffia while impatient customers shifted their weight among overflowing metal buckets unwieldy with green-white hydrangeas and dozens of Virginia roses, creamy and full-blown, an echo of peach in the petals.”
Geoghegan is a master of illustrating the larger picture, without letting the small details fall by the wayside. She is able to show the entire vendor station, yet the fragrance of the flowers still looms.
The final, titular story, “eightball,” scales back on the provocativeness of the earlier stories, instead offering a rawer (though no less empathetic) portrait as siblings Quinn and Patrick jump back and forth from their childhood to young adulthood, as Patrick spirals into addiction with drugs. It’s a painful story to read for anyone that has been close to an addict, but Geoghegan is gentle in her approach of the characters, treating them with respect as they fall.
Geoghegan’s strongest, most formulated work in this book is “A Roman Story,” a framed story based on the scene of a father, Pierto, tossing his baby, Marcolino, off a bridge in Rome. Passerbys Salvatore, and his dog, Zeno, are the only ones to observe what has happened. We then get Pierto’s life story, wrapped in heartbreak, loss, drugs, poverty, robbery, fulfillment, and family. These elements pull the lens in to explain the meaning of the final tragic scene.
And like this story, the entire collection provides a constant unraveling of simple love, youthful lust, pure admiration, and the painful in-betweens. We meet proud women, prudent women, provocative women, and a paramour. The reader is taken around the world and back again, only to be reminded that where there is love and humor, pain and suffering can always easily be right around the corner.