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Steven J. McDermott, Winter of Different Directions

(Note: You might recall that I recently finished my Summer of Classics, checking back in with old standbys that I hadn't read in a long while or had never read in the first place. I'm going to keep the themed reading period concept going for a while longer, which brings me to Short Story September. I'm reading several story collections this month, with the first being Steven J. McDermott's debut collection Winter of Different Directions. Disclaimer: Steve's an online friend of mine, and also published my first story, "Ectoplasm", at his literary journal Storyglossia. But despite our relationship I held his book to the same standard I observe for all book reviews on my blog: I have to genuinely like it, and have some intelligent commentary to contribute.)

Steve McDermott's tough and compelling stories in Winter of Different Directions are populated by characters who all seem, to varying degrees, lost and forlorn - wayward, disconnected souls, each of whom is struggling to gain some semblance of a normal life.

McDermott's stories, and by extension his characters, are at their most comfortable in the great outdoors - on the ocean, in the woods, even on the more civilized climes of golf courses or city parks. In contrast, his workplace stories, being interior and insulated, aren't nearly as well developed, their characters considerably paler and a few of the narratives coming across as mere rants against the excesses of the dot-com era.

But in his outdoor stories, McDermott truly shines. By far my favorite story in the collection is "Oxygen", a sad and elegiac ode to the narrator's grandfather, a retired commercial fisherman whose decades of smoking and other non-clean living have first left him a victim of throat cancer, housebound and unable to sail, and later ultimately takes his life. The narrator, struggling to find meaning in his own empty life, reconnects with his grandfather through one particular smell - and a peculiar smell, too, one which few people would draw any enjoyment from. (Note: the smell is not bodily.) This smell arises again at the touching conclusion of the story, at sea, as the grandson pays his final respects to his grandfather's memory.

In another striking story, the wonderfully titled "Single Malts of the Olympic Peninsula", a not-so-recovering alcoholic also seeks solace and comfort in nature, to such an extreme that he leaves his safe AA meeting to drive headlong into a fierce storm rolling in off the Pacific, reflecting on his troubled life the entire way. His Scotch-fueled journey predictably ends with him driving off the road into dense undergrowth, through which he staggers, only possibly toward safety, all the while noting the surrounding vegetation by their original Latin names. His ex-girlfriend the botanist had once insisted that he do so, refraining from using any of the common names. The fact that he's calling plants by name - and their Latin names, no less - when he should be focused on survival shows how far he is from recovering from that failed relationship and, by extension, how far he is from restoring his failed life.

"Gas Money" is perhaps the saddest story of all, one which movingly relates the plight of a homeless and down-on-his-luck landscaper, who lives in his truck, uses a Porta Potty, a stream and YMCA showers for bathroom facilities, subsists on apples stolen from trees in a city park and types up job proposals on a manual typewriter at a picnic table, all as he strives for that one maintenance contract that will save him and put his life back on track. His is a wretched existence, but the author's empathy has the reader pulling for the narrator all the way as he bravely faces his highly insurmountable odds.

McDermott's best stories are tightly wound and concise, ending not a moment later than they should. For the most part, the author says what he has to say, and then moves on. This leaves the stories open-ended, as I generally prefer my fiction - no tidy conclusions, no grand but false summations. Sometimes, however, McDermott ends his stories a bit too abruptly - occasionally I found myself wanting one or two more hints of where the protagonist's life may lead after the story ends. But that concern is only minor; overall, McDermott's debut is a fine collection of stories and characters whose lives I very much enjoyed sharing, if only for a few moments.

September 25, 2007 in Books | Permalink


With that rousing review, I might have to buy that one. Thanks.

Posted by: Nick Ostdick at Sep 25, 2007 8:35:14 PM