On the Banks of the Wabash
Other Heartbreaks, Stories by Patricia Henley, Engine Books, Indianapolis, 2011, paper, $14.95.
Patricia Henley published Friday Night at Silver Star in 1986 after it won the Montana First Book award. Two novels and two more books of stories followed. Hummingbird House, the first novel, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the New Yorker Fiction Prize. Other Heartbreaks is her sixth book of fiction, and possibly her best.
Known to the literary world, Henley deserves a wider audience. She was born and brought up in Terre Haute, Indiana, on the banks of the Wabash River, immortalized in the 1896 popular song. High school and college happened in Maryland. Henley escaped to the west coast for youthful adventures, then returned to Indiana in 1987 to teach at Purdue University, where she is a professor in the MFA program in creative writing.
Place looms large in Henley’s fiction. She gives us the scenery, the smells, the food, the weather, even the architecture. No place exercises her powers more than Indiana. Like a gracious hostess, she opens her home to the reader. She calls attention to the décor, the color scheme, and the signage, such as “Hand-Spanked Burgers.” She introduces the inhabitants so well that we would recognize them anywhere. Then she opens their shabby hearts.
Illicit love affairs, alcoholic rages, petty crimes, the ache of sexual longing, regret for lost innocence—they are all here. But Henley transcends virtuoso description. Her characters hurt each other, help each other, and struggle toward some ill-defined peace or truce. For all the Catholic practice and spirituality, though, Henley steers clear of salvation. Bonnie, the narrator in “Kaput,” strikes a grim compromise with Kim, a woman who betrayed her years ago. Jenny, the repressed young woman in “Red Lily” maps an even bleaker future in the last paragraph: “She had a mean streak and at that moment she was grateful for it.” Despite the heartache, the mood in Henley’s stories is light. Like Chekhov, she looks at human foibles with a clear eye. She creates humor by setting incongruous facts side by side. Here is life, she seems to say: how does it taste?
Henley’s style is smooth, but the density of some of the stories demands rereading. The second time around, the craft is apparent. From “No Refunds in Case of Inclement Weather,” here is the first sentence: “Ellen Winters felt clueless about lovers and cars, but she needed one of each.” Neat as a theorem, the story develops from this. Ellen borrows her mother’s Volvo, and she finds love with an older woman named Claire, “down by the Wabash, wind damp in their faces.” After eight years, Claire returns to her ex, a park caretaker named Tommy, and Ellen is blindsided, in tears. he last sentence reads: “Claire rises to embrace her, to set her free.”
“Sun Damage” is repeated from the earlier collection Worship of the Common Heart. Complex in structure, again set in Indiana, it centers on timid Meg and her dreadful mother Hannah, who beats her with a wooden spoon after teenage sex. Uncle Dennis, who “liked to plant things,” is both enabler and consoler. After all the confusion, the final note is serene: “Beyond him a row of slim red tulips had closed for the night.”
The last three stories are linked, and they show Henley’s use of symbols. An extended family in Chicago suffers a sudden loss, the death of young Luis Gonzales by random gunfire. His wife Sophie mourns, her parents Joe and Emma March mourn, and the Gonzales family deals with grief in their way. The young couple are artists, and Sophie cooks. You can smell the chocolate cake. They live upstairs from the shop where Joe sells baseball memorabilia. The shop is in a bad neighborhood called Pilsen, once thick with Eastern European immigrants. Joe should have sold out long ago.
“Skylark” focuses on Joe, who drives his father’s vintage Skylark convertible. The second and third stories focus on Emma and Sophie. Emma intrudes on Sophie, then escapes to Ireland, and Joe refuses to go with her. Sophie, still in pain, seeks out her Gonzales kin and finds relief in brother-in-law Benny, a sculptor. In his studio, she sees “a poster of radical cheerleaders at a peace march . . . shaking pom-poms made of trash bags.” Benny says she could join up, and she laughs. We understand that she will heal.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. Boucheron writes on housing, home improvement, communities, gardens, electric motorcycles, and love gone wrong. His work appears in Blue Lake Review, Cerise Press, Construction, Cossack Review, Dark Matter, Foliate Oak, Heavy Feather Review, Mouse Tales Press, New England Review, Niche, Northern Virginia, Piedmont Virginian, Prime Number, Rider, Streetlight, Talking Writing, 34th Parallel, Virginia Business, Zodiac Review.