Skating on the Vertical
Jan English Leary
Fomite Press, 2017
203 pages, $15.00
Reviewed by Ashley Miller
Each of the sixteen stories in Jan English Leary’s Skating on the Vertical, out now from Fomite Press, examines a character, most often a Midwestern woman, encountering and grappling with moments of change, opening the characters to emotional trauma and conflict, sometimes stoking a struggle with physical or emotional illness, paralyzing them, and many times forcing them to make difficult decisions. These changes sometimes occur suddenly, like unexpectedly giving birth at home or witnessing a student’s breakdown, or they can take time to fully blossom, like the slow-burn of a developing affair or the unraveling of terminal illness, but no matter the iteration, change is the unavoidable constant.
Many of the changes we see in this collection affect women, many of whom are facing issues with infertility, mothering, and eating disorders. However, the titular story is about Nate, a teenage boy, who learns to connect skating on the vertical sections of U-shaped ramps, where “sometimes, [skateboarding] was like flying, like having control over the air,” to how it feels to navigate the many hills and valleys of growing up. At first this story about a boy seems incongruous with the others, but in fact it underscores the universality of struggle and change. While skating on the vertical, Nate feels “his stomach rising to his throat before sinking,” he feels exhilarated, in control, but at the same time “he might wipe out at any moment, knees and chin to concrete, a total crash.” This simultaneous pull of freedom and fear neatly conveys the universal sensation all of Leary’s characters experience, in which they skate a line between control and chaos, normalcy and change, safety and disaster, and sometimes we watch and cringe as they inevitably crash and scrape their chins.
Leary is more concerned with exposing and exploring the constant of change and its seismic effects than conducting close character studies. This is not to say that Leary hasn’t created intriguing characters; the collection would ultimately fail if all its stories were filled with flat, nondescript placeholders. We are given characters like Margaret, an elementary school teacher whose struggle to control her binging and purging impulses brings out a cruel streak in her, as she feels “a delicious pleasure in ditching [a student]” while supervising a field trip and imagines said student’s mother tossing craft projects in the trash. And we meet Kim, who knows her “strange exhilaration” for the grieving father of the family she babysits for is wrong, but still wears crop tops in hopes he notices her belly button ring. And then there’s Monica, a fifth-grade girl whose current obsession with ancient Egyptian history leaks into her everyday life, coloring her world as she tries to cope with the aftermath of her father’s serious accident.
“Wedding Photo”, one of the shortest stories in the bunch, expands on the idea of “skating on the vertical,” pinning and exposing the heart of the collection. Though short, it is one of the best. In the two-page piece, the narrator studies an aged photograph of her parents on their wedding day, ruminating on what she knows the two people in the candid, captured moment will experience in the years to come. While the story doesn’t focus on one particular trauma, as so many of the other stories in the collection do, its juxtaposition of the frozen photograph from what is assumed to be a day of happiness and celebration, with the narrator’s knowledge of all the emotional turmoil, sadness, and possible regret that develop and grow in the years to follow, exploits the tension between control and ruin, between knowing and not knowing, in such a way that the reader suddenly feels exposed, too.
And that is the lasting bruise that Skating on the Vertical inflicts on its readers: there are no sure things for anyone, there are no infinite moments. These sixteen stories discover and display the universality of experiencing change, and ultimately the emotional trauma everyone, regardless of how they look or function in the world, experiences during rattling or demanding times. We are all trapped and molded and shifted by choices, by uncontrollable forces, by circumstances out of our control, and we are all teetering on the edge of change, maybe seconds from our own “total crash.”