Fave writer dishes tastiest gumbo in new tales
by Rob Neufeld
Folks know him from his folk-realist novels—“Next Step in the Dance,” which stars a mechanic; “The Clearing,” with its alligator-and-sawmill take on the thriller; and “The Missing,” which follows the track of an abducted girl.
Now, we have his fourth story collection, “Signals” (Knopf), and it demonstrates how far an author can go in creating archetypes.
“Attitude Adjustment,” first published in the December 2015 issue of “The Atlantic,” features a one-of-a-kind hero.
Father Jim, a hulking Catholic priest, suffers burn scars, a blind eye, and memory lapses after a train had crashed into his car. Misadventures stem from his stints as a substitute priest. Delivering homilies and hearing confessions, he is as bizarre as Chauncey in “Being There.”
A man comes to Jim and confesses that he visits porn sites. “You mean,” Father Jim replies, “you visited…the studios where they film the stuff?”
No, the man says; he just turns on the computer. Father Jim, undeterred, recommends that the man actually visit the filming sites and see how creepy they are; how vulnerable the girls are. “They could be,” Jim suggests, “your teenage niece.”
The man’s niece would never do that, he says; she works at Burger King to make money for college.
“For your penance,” Father Jim concludes, “I want you to go watch your niece…Watch the dignity of her work.”
“Aw, can’t you just give me a rosary to say or like ten Hail Marys?” the man responds.
In Gautreaux’s collection, the wise fool archetype pops up alongside sly foxes and swamp-stomping maidens in tall tale toppers that are superior to folk legends in that the details are so gritty.
Father Jim’s next episode gets hairier; and he ends up in jail. This is hilarious. It’s almost as if you took an Andy Griffith script and let Danny Elfman write the score.
The question that you, as a reader, ask is “Where is Gautreaux taking us in the end?”
In “Attitude Adjustment,” I was looking for either a realistic ending or an outrageous, laugh-in-your-face cartoon one. Instead, we get Father Jim telling a tale to a little kids’ Bible class, coming up with morals, and then having snack time. The story got safe all of a sudden.
In “The Furnace Man’s Lament,” the hero is, of course, a furnace man; and the story is not so safe.
It’s a lament—namely, a lament for a missed opportunity at human connection. This is a major theme for Gautreaux.
In “Deputy Sid’s Gift,” a cop makes a man feel bad for his hard line against an alcoholic, homeless thief. Sid demonstrates what human caring is like.
In “Sorry Blood,” a man with dementia gets abducted in a Walmart parking lot by a ne’er-do-well who calls him dad, brings him home, and makes him dig a drainage ditch.
The addled man eventually reconnects with repressed memories (his wife had died) and muses, “The only thing worse than reliving nightmares…was enduring a life full of strangers.”
In “Signals,” a reclusive Latvian-American teacher loses his only solace, the stereo receiver he’d brought from Latvia. The woman who fixes it calls him out on his wretched lack of interest in life.
“The Furnace Man’s Lament” begins with the most direct appeal to human connection.
Mel Todd, the title character, gets a phone call about a life-and-death heater problem in the midst of a Minnesota blizzard. His wife, Linda, who describes his heart as “starched and ironed,” asks “Who is it?”
A stranger, Mel answers. Linda jabs him the ribs, and says, “It’s going to be below zero tonight…You go fix it, Mel.”
Mel discovers a 16-year-old boy living alone with his bedridden grandpa. The boy, Jack, watches Mel closely as Mel explains mechanics.
The story stands out because it progresses to an ambiguous ending. Mel ends up helping Jack—in a generous way—but not as much as his sense of rightness had instructed him; and he ultimately loses his connection with Jack.
Gautreaux serves up this tale of conscience with plenty of suspense, including Mel’s icy slide into a highway ditch and his prospect of freezing.
“Are you alone,” a policeman asks, returning Mel’s cell phone call. Mel doesn’t answer, reflecting, “I couldn’t bring myself to say that word.”
I have been a fan of Gautreaux’s mechanics-smart heroes and heroines ever since “Last Step in the Dance,” in which Paul Thibordeaux faces death inside the antiquated boiler of a waste-processing plant.
Paul is one those Gautreaux characters who, despite coming from a grim Flannery O’Connor version of Mike Fink’s legendary world, is truly decent. Some of these characters are large and in-charge wives and working women.
In “Died and Gone to Vegas,” Raynelle Bullfinch, a cook on a steam dredge, leads a game of bourré, a Louisiana spades variant.
She tells a newcomer, Nick, a young oiler, “that the only sense of mystery in her life was provided by a deck of cards.” The players then tell big lies as Raynelle wins the big pots. She wants to go to Vegas with her winnings.
Gambling emerges as a theme, as also in “Something for Nothing,” in which Roy Bradruff loses everything on a casino boat. Wayne, a new casino employee, tells him that getting the big payoff is a seven-million-to-one shot; and Roy responds, “Better than no shot.”
Gautreaux delights in prose that sometimes approaches sprung poetry, such as when he describes Wayne’s experience as a lifeguard, breaking up fights between boys “driven crazy by budding subdivision girls burnished beautiful by sunshine and pool chemicals.”
Most wonderful is Gautreaux’s mythologizing.
When Wayne first learns that his swimming skills are needed to respond to big losers who fear going home, he looks at the aluminum motorboat his supervisor, Mr. Joey, shows him and exclaims, “My God, we’re the suicide skiff.”
Mr. Joey, “running his thumb down the music of his comb,” says, “No, we’re lifeguards.” Raymond Chandler couldn’t have cast it better.
Gautreaux takes this 20-page story all the way to the last paragraph before giving in to the moral of the story, voiced by the gambler’s son. It has to do with people not being hard on themselves and everyone taking responsibility for their own lives.
In sum, Gautreaux’s sentimentality is impressively outweighed by his choice of characters and tale-telling mastery.
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly book feature for the Sunday Citizen-Times. He is the author and editor of six books, and the publisher of the website, “The Read on WNC.” He can be reached at RNeufeld@charter.net and 505-1973. Follow him @WNC_chronicler.