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Reviews

For Out of the Heart We Pump Our Pleas

For Out of the Heart Proceed
by Jensen Beach
Dark Sky Books, 2012
120 pages / $12.00  Buy from Dark Sky Books or SPD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The twenty-two stories in Jensen Beach’s debut collection, For Out of the Heart Proceed, center on family and in particular father and son relationships. The collection is peopled with troubled characters struggling to make sense of their circumstances, choices, and connection to others. What is perhaps most compelling about these stories are the interesting and memorable ways the characters grapple with issues of faith: Faith in themselves, others, the world, and the divine. There is great efficiency to Beach’s prose and a precise order to this collection that juxtaposes the disturbances and sometimes chaos of these characters’ lives, conflicted characters often controlled by fear.

For Out of the Heart Proceed contains three Parts linked by how its men do, and sometimes don’t, transcend their fears and difficult situations. In the first story, “Training Exercise,” a father and young son must brave the dark and what appears to be a menacing, male stranger in their back garden:

The [lion] flashlight keeps growling and the man keeps growling back and the lion’s plastic teeth are casting a weird silhouette on the man’s face. We’re all stuck there, locked, more or less, in what’s looking to me to shape up like a battle of wills.

This opening story contains a mix of light and dark that’s both literal and figurative and sets the tone for the entire collection.

In “Peafowl,” the male protagonist undergoes several changes of heart involving exotic birds, his wife, the natural world, and himself:

‘I think they’re gay,’ the famer said. ‘Gay birds,’ he said and hung up the phone. My wife had moved from the living room to the back deck. I watched from the window as she dragged one of the deck chairs over to a thin strip of sunlight, where she sat and turned her face to the warmth. It was March and we were all anxious.

Themes around our relationship to the wild and unknowable appear often in the collection.

“Orion,” the last story in Part I and one of the longest stories in the book, tells the tale of two estranged friends forced to consider the power and the magic of the human imagination and experience:

‘Seen from Earth, Orion appears to be plotted along a single plane. However, the bodies that make up this and other constellations are only connected in the human imagination.’

The two men are also forced to confront the opposites of that power and magic:

I thought of the crumpled body of Tom’s dark blue jeep. The endless line of cars they’d shown on the news the night of the accident. ‘You go crazy at home,’ he said. ‘Everyone knows I killed my kid. I can’t just sit around forever with that.’

“Orion,” a story where the bizarre, profound, and arbitrary are expertly handled, ends Part I on a dark, nuanced note with the protagonist’s fear heightened and his faith tested. The reader is right there inside this wonderful awful closing scene and image, as squeezed as the cockatiel in the protagonist’s arms and left to wonder what will happen next? While Beach portrays his characters’ struggles with compassion, there’s also an insistence on honesty in these stories and a refusal to skirt characters’ flaws or to offer readers easy resolutions.

The theme of place also appears often in the collection, both geographic place and place as an ideal that characters yearn to reach. In Part II’s first story, “Africa,” tension mounts in an uneasy triangle of father, potential girlfriend, and daughter:

It was awful, of course, losing limbs in such a violent, bloody way. No one could deny that. But this was a kind of violence he normally didn’t think about; and there was his daughter running around on the linoleum floor talking about frozen cocks. He began to think about sin and circumstance and violence. It was all very disorienting.

As the story unfolds, through telling details and dialogue, we feel the protagonist’s sense of loss at his inability to connect with this woman.

“Priest Lake, Idaho” and the final story in Part II, “To the World I’ll be Buried,” are especially moving and strong. Beach inserts himself into “Priest Lake, Idaho,” exploring on the page different authorial choices he can make for the story’s protagonist and alluding to God, omniscience, and the often-cruel and sometimes fortuitous randomness (or is it fate?) of life:

The man recognizes himself, or some image of himself, in the shed. Like it, he is old and will, more than likely, not be around all that much longer. He’s already lost his wife. His son—or it could just as well be a daughter—is married and lives back east. He’s alone, apart from the dog I haven’t mentioned yet.

A dog plays a bigger and bleaker role in “To the World I’ll be Buried,” another story that centers on tense relationship triangles and betrayals both real and imagined:

He cupped his hand to his mouth and called to the dog. The motion-activated security light above the door turned on. He stepped out into the irregular oval of yellow light on the deck. Beside his foot, there was an uneven spot in the dark stain. He’d promised to add a new coat before he left. Molly liked a color called Bourbon. He whistled loudly with two fingers in his mouth so that when he came back to the bedroom without the dog, she would know that at least he’d tried.

The success of “To the World I’ll be Buried” and the collection as a whole lies in how real and relatable these often quirky characters and their strange dilemmas become in our imaginations. Through keen details and the characters’ well-drawn thoughts, actions, and dialogue, Beach brings the stories’ setting and cast alive and the latter’s hopes and fears are as individual as they are universal.

In Part III, the work becomes ever more imaginative and surreal as the male protagonists continue to overcome hurdles both within and outside of themselves in order to thrive and/or survive. “Their Future Looks Brighter the Closer It Gets to the Sun” tells the story of a father and son who together make an enormous kite and attempt to escape the “dusty, yellowed earth” by flying on the kite’s tails.

“Spaceport America” introduces us to another father and son duo searching beyond their everyday existence and the earth itself for meaning and significance:

He placed the necklace on the counter, spread it out with his fingers. The arrowhead was about the size of a quarter, maybe a little bigger. ‘What does this make you think of?’ he asked.

The door opened. I could smell the approaching rain outside. I got the impression the arrowhead was supposed to trigger some memory or a joke Charlie and I shared, but I couldn’t imagine what it might’ve been. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It’s an arrowhead necklace.”

He looked at me. ‘Nothing?’ he said.

‘I guess not,’ I said. The only thing I could think was that maybe he’d once bought his mother a similar necklace. If there was some deeper significance, I couldn’t locate it in the necklace itself. I looked at Charlie for a clue, but he just stared back. Then I looked at the necklace, laid out on the counter like it was being worn. ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘I want to be blasted into space after I’ve died.’ I held the brochure up in front of me.

The collection’s final, title story, “For Out of the Heart Proceed,” brings us perhaps the most humorous and yet crushing tale in this collection. Jim and his son, Gene, are a man and a boy both rootless and searching. Like so many other characters in this book, Jim and Gene feel forced to look beyond the real and the ordinary to find a sense of connection and belonging:

The giant doors slid open as we approached. ‘See,’ I said, showing Gene our true robot nature, ‘we’re kings here. Doors open for us.’ I thought of Ted on the lawn the day before and jerked my arms up and down, beeped a couple times. The robot is lonely. Gene looked up at me, turning his whole body to follow his head. It was a perfect pantomime of a robot.

‘Do they have our kind in Cleveland?’ Gene asked.

‘Affirmative,’ I said. ‘We’re everywhere.’

Jim, again like the rest of the protagonists in this collection, is both flawed and striving hard to do the right thing and the story’s close is as poignant as it is open-ended.

The story endings in For Out of the Heart Proceed are often unexpected and open-ended. There’s the urge at each story’s finish to turn the page, searching for more, not with disappointment or with dissatisfaction, but with that hunger to know ‘the end.’ However, Jensen is too successful at nuance, subtext, and omission to give readers any less than the only close to each story. At the book’s finish, we are reminded that little, if anything, ends where we expect. We can never fully know another’s story or the full depths of a character, least of all our own. We are forever striving, looking within and beyond our existence for the best place, the best way, sometimes with fear, sometimes with faith, and sometimes with both.

***

Ethel Rohan is the author of Hard to Say (PANK) and Cut Through the Bone (Dark Sky Books), the latter longlisted for The Story Prize. Her work has or will appear in World Literature Today, Tin House Online, The Irish Times, The Rumpus, Post Road Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in fiction from Mills College, California. Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives in San Francisco. Visit her at ethelrohan.com.

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