by Joel Mowdy
Catapult Books, 2019
236 Pages, $16.95
Review by AnnaLee Barclay
In his impressive first collection of stories, Floyd Harbor (Catapult Press, 2019), Joel Mowdy explores the darker side of America’s Original Suburb. Named after a middle- to low-income community on the South Shore of Long Island, Mowdy depicts the tensions and dichotomies of this environment through the eyes of its residents, mostly wayward souls trying to catch a break from crappy jobs, toxic relationships, or even themselves.
While in today’s society, suburbia generally has more diverse populations and income levels, there are still those who are marginalized, and people who grow up here, like me, must learn to navigate life under these conditions. Growing up here is odd and, at times, difficult. Children of millionaires attend public school with children who are fed by food stamps. Manhattan is only a train ride away and beautiful waters surround you but contained within these boundaries is a huge population of people both exhausted by the capitalistic rat race and bored by the numbing monotony of suburbia.
The young residents of Floyd Harbor are often cooking up schemes to make money or spending their days off from low-paying jobs being, as one character describes it, “blown around by the wind of any idea that might’ve whispered in [their] ears.” Drugs are often involved, either due to addiction or a spontaneous decision to make the day more exciting. One of my favorite stories in the collection, “Far-Off Places”, revolves around two high school seniors on acid, mainly taking place at various 7-Elevens throughout the night and often incorporating hot dogs. The convenience stores’ parking lots serve as settings for emotional conversations, drug-induced revelations, and observations of the other souls wandering into the fluorescent lights. “The 7-Eleven was neither a buoy nor a lighthouse. It was a small island.” This idea echoes throughout the collection, constantly reminding the characters and readers alike that their personal worlds, whether a 7-Eleven, a diner parking lot, or the backseat of a cab, exist on a literal island. There is a palpable tension between the hope of the characters’ big dreams and the realities of their limited opportunities, a tension that is reflective of the physical presence of one of the largest cities on earth connected via bridge to an otherwise restricted piece of land.
A common jest about Long Island is that everyone knows each other, or at least has a mutual friend. Mowdy utilizes this small-world aspect of the island by having characters pop up in multiple stories throughout the book, often mentioned quickly in passing or as a periphery character who isn’t identified by name, but rather a specific characteristic or incident, such as being arrested in a parking lot while tripping on acid naked. I found myself frequently flipping back to earlier stories to find evidence of a character I had just read about who felt familiar to me, which delighted me as a native Long Islander.
We first meet Meredith, a volunteer nurse, as she pulls into the driveway of a patient who is inside his house about to drown in the bathroom after a suicide attempt. The patient is the main character of the story, an obese Hispanic man who was bullied throughout childhood and adolescence as a “retarded spic”, an important reminder of the insidious and vicious racism and ableism in this area of the country. Later, in a different story, Meredith is mentioned as the wife of a PTSD-suffering Vietnam vet. Through multiple stories, we gain snippets of information about a side character, enough to form a picture of this woman and her life without ever getting a direct overview of her as a main character in any story.
It’s this deft style, dropping us directly into the lives of these wayward souls, that makes this book truly effective. We become fully immersed in their worlds for ten, twenty pages and then it’s over. Consider how Mowdy, through his breezy, matter-of-fact tone, presents a summer afternoon spent dealing with a stray cat:
“The cat high up in the tree was lucky we stopped there the moment he couldn’t hold on anymore. When it landed on Rose’s chest, she screamed.”
In the same way he presents a Vietnam Veteran suffering from PTSD:
“My oldest brother tried telling my father that the Vietnam War had also ended, many years ago, and that there was no way he could go back. But my father just said, ‘Baloney.'”
Mowdy never makes a value judgment on the lives and events throughout his collection, but rather portrays a specific area of the country with the intimacy and tenderness of an empathetic observer. The characters continue on and we move to the next snapshot of a life. What we are left with, as readers, is a photo album of self-destructive teenagers, absent fathers, law-breaking waitresses, and mothers trying to keep their families together. It is impossible to read these stories without feeling heartache for the universal pain of the human condition that exists within all of us, regardless of whether we were bred in suburbia or not.