In the Season of Blood and Gold
by Taylor Brown
Press 53, 2014
160 pages, $14.95
Review by George Salis
Taylor Brown’s debut collection of twelve stories presents us with characters that are subtly yet majorly deficient. They yearn to give or receive love and they’ve been brushed or beaten by violence and indifference too many times. There is a fair amount of variety in the stories, with some taking place in the past, others in the present, and one in the post-apocalyptic future. Yet despite the range of time they overlap with themes and moments of human frailty, sometimes disguised as power.
“The Rider” is a harsh story that evokes post-millennia Don DeLillo. Brown’s images are born and enmeshed in coldness and darkness, appropriate for the nameless anti-hero, a poacher of rich men’s lands who has taken refuge in the home of a female outcast. Violence and death haunt the two characters, which is why they sleep with a shotgun, “old double Damascus that divided them, too cold to warm.” The nameless woman, who lost her husband at the mouth of a bridge where he was “blown headless,” later pays with her life for her attempt at bringing love to where no love exists. After the poacher was caught quite literally red-handed, he says he’ll do anything. “Anything,” responds one of the men on horseback. They get him to kill the woman he’d been staying with, sleeping with, because she is considered trouble.
In “Kingdom Come,” a story about a boy who is in love with his stepsister, Bridgett, the prose is equally shivering. In the beginning, the boy tosses his blade, a murder weapon, into a well. Bridgett had married a local man of the McEvoy family, Boyd, but when she gives birth the hair matches that of the boy’s and not of her husband’s. The boy is warned by his stepmother that “Boyd will kill it and maybe Bridgett too. You as well. McEvoys do not brook such disgrace.” His eventual encounter with Boyd, one charged with distress once the boy gives the news, ends in murder. As he is hunted down by the rest of the McEvoy family and shot in the back with a shotgun, he knows that “Kingdom come, maybe, but not for him.”
It’s true: the characters of these stories lie and kill. They act in seemingly counterproductive ways because of a lack of love and for the attainment of it. It seems counterproductive because it is. This is the lesson to learn: one doesn’t get ice from fire, nor love from hate.
These stories are, in every sense of the word, short, yet they never seem to end without the actual sense of an ending. “Bone Valley,” which engenders the best use of character-building scenes in the collection, features an old gator wrestler, Hart, who is disconnected not only from his son but seemingly from the modern world. When he kills a 12-foot or more gator that ate a little girl’s arm, the mother sees him as “a link to another world. To the violence that lay sleeping underneath the sidewalks, the nearly-painted streets and four-lane superhighways… The violence that was never really asleep.” The juxtaposition between this so-thought ancient violence and modernity is telling. Violence, as the other stories elucidate, is an ancient thing yet awake even today. The yellowed teeth of gators are but one manifestation of it. Hart’s only connection to innocence, his twenty-seven-year-old son, is long severed, yet he still sends fossils that he finds in the phosphate mines (nicknamed the Bone Valley) to the last address that he knows of, because he knew that his son, at six years old, wanted to be an archeologist.
Some of the characters do find that deeply buried or long lost love, such as in “The Vizsla,” when a boy named Whit makes a connection with one of the dogs his father raises. Whit’s father, who had been a frequently abusive drunk, witnesses Whit’s beloved dog, Sarah, badly hurt, beaten by its new owner. He stands up for the dog and he is beaten for it, but when Whit takes the pistol hanging from the back of the owner’s waistband and discharges it, the violence ends. The dog’s and Whit’s father’s blood mix in the dirt. Just as Whit’s father sympathizes with the dog, so does Whit while looking into his father’s eyes, which are “wide-welled and quivering from the damaged flesh. Hoping. Pleading. Not for help. For something else. Something harder to give.” Similarly, Hector, in “River of Fire,” is a man who runs a bicycle shop and eventually feels connected to a scarred manatee that comes near the shore to drink from a freshwater runoff. Eventually the manatee fails to appear and later her death is covered in the newspaper, explaining that it was from a speeding boat. Hector knows who the murderer was: a famous baseball player who recently moved to the island and drove his giant boat full throttle through the No Wake Zone. In vigilante-fury Hector douses the boat with fire and sets it fiercely aflame. The story comes to a too-perfect end, where the baseball player realizes he did in fact hit a manatee and, upon the continued insistence of his twin daughters, he promises to buy an air boat that is devoid of propellers. So in this case, violence and revenge is fruitful, which seems to go against the general message of the other stories.
Overall, Brown’s prose is effective and simply beautiful, but there are odd moments where it becomes too fragmented, using an unnecessary amount of pronouns that works against the narrative. These disjointed moments are most prevalent in “Sin-Eaters,” such as with “he should have seen it coming, the storm,” “But now, but now he had this. This hope in the satchel,” and “he had been to the edge of it, to exile.” To simply say what it is would allow the intensity of this post-apocalyptic story to be felt more fully. In the story, we find the barbarism of survival, where only the hunters know of the meat they eat, which are humans hunted down As a ceremonial induction for his thirteenth birthday Gilead must kill a person, which becomes part of the feast later in the day. A horrid situation that echoes of the Sonderkommandos of the holocaust: mostly Jews who were forced to trick cartloads of people into gas chambers and then dispose of the endless bodies. Later, when Gilead retreats within a cabin from sniper fire, he finds himself face to face with a pale woman, who is hiding a baby in the folds of blankets. And Gilead looks at the baby’s eyes. The eyes remind him of the old man he killed for initiation and he is disturbed.
The characters in Brown’s stories, like Gilead, do recognize at times that the world is at odds with their broken selves. Evil doesn’t breed good, but good can replace evil (and the opposite is true), because as harsh as the world can be, there are natural paradises that we can find, that we can aspire to. We can be as clean and pure as the snow in our actions, in ourselves. Brown shows us that by forcing us to first confront the horrors, the darkness, that might lie within.