New York. Black Lawrence. 2009 (rel. 2010). 191 pages. $16. isbn 978-0-9815899-5-4
"The link between butterflies and dreams is poorly understood." So begins the title story of this wry and witty collection, narrated by a henpecked husband who, it turns out, has Alzheimer's disease. So the reader has doubts, even as the story begins. It is not just unusual; it is bizarre for the narrator to be the victim of a mental condition he can't control. But his condition isn't pitiable; it is comical. He is collecting butterflies by catching them in his hand, not in a net, and not outdoors but in the insect cage of a zoo, muttering to himself as he does so, about how boring his wife and her mother are, about how glad he is to capture a butterfly and take it home with him, where he can release it and marvel at its fluttering, which conjures up exotic and colorful images in his muddled brain. One can imagine James Thurber drawing a cartoon of him.
Fred McGavran's characters tend to be eccentrics who inhabit a world of humdrum people from whom they are trying to escape. There is the beautician whose specialty is making corpses appear lifelike in the coffin, the amputee who still nurses his phantom limb, or the young historian who seduced the woman he married with stories of the scandalous behavior of Roman emperors. These eccentrics are distinctive individuals, conscious nonconformists, while the normal people all seem depressingly alike, unaware of how mundane and trivial their lives really are. As you read these stories you find yourself laughing at the misfortunes of those who deliberately break social conventions to avoid boredom and others who are trapped in them and can't break out. Ennui, Baudelaire once wrote, is the besetting sin of bourgeois society, and all McGavran's characters are decidedly bourgeois, whether they are happy or unhappy. They are mostly unhappy, but the author's humorous treatment keeps the reader from pitying them.
The humor is understated and often wicked. There is not a single story without it, and McGavran's fiction is infused with a sort of subdued laughter that bubbles up, no matter how outlandish or implausible the plot. "Breaking Cover," for instance, is about a man whose arm is shrunken from polio but who once killed a bear and loves to tell the story of how he did it, varying it each time so that "the story was either hysterically funny or more frightening than a recurring nightmare." McGavran's narrator may be a lawyer (his own profession when he isn't writing stories), or a real estate agent, or a minister, but he is never exactly the same person, and the setting may be a retirement home or a comfortable suburban house or a hospital, but what goes on is always unpredictable and often startling. If you read him, be prepared for surprises; you won't be disappointed.
Miami University, Ohio
Table of Contents
SPECIAL SECTION: German Crime Writing
Guest edited by J. Madison Davis
- Introduction, J. Madison Davis, guest editor
- FICTION: Lisa Lercher, "Forty-three-year-old woman seeking..."
- ESSAY: Beatrix Kramlovsky, "Show Your Face, oh Violence"
- ESSAY: Almuth Heuner, "Germany's Crime and Mystery Scene"
- FICTION: Nina George, "The Light in the West"
- ESSAY: Hughes Schlueter, "The Grand Duchy Strikes Back"
- ESSAY: Paul Ott, "Murder in the Alpenglow: Swiss Crime Writing in the German Language"
- ESSAY: Thomas Przybilka, "A Resource for Lovers of Crime Writing: The Bonn Archive of Secondary Crime Writing Literature"
SPECIAL SECTION: World Cup/World Lit 2011
Guest edited by John Turnbull
- Introduction, John Turnbull, guest editor
- INTERVIEW: John Turnbull, "A Conversation with Nalinaksha Bhattacharya"
- FICTION: Nalinaksha Bhattacharya, "Hem and Football" an excerpt
- POETRY: Mona Nicole Sfeir, "Laws of the Game (adapted from FIFA 2010-11)"
- INTERVIEW: Sandra Kingery, "A Conversation with Ana María Moix"
- ESSAY: Jennifer Doyle, "Soccer, Art and Desire"
- INTERVIEW: John Turnbull, "A Conversation with Elísabet Jökulsdóttir"
- ESSAY: Clarice Lispector, "Armando Nogueira, Soccer, and Me (Poor Thing)"
- WLT Online Book Club: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky
- Author Profile: Jonas Hassen Khemiri
- Czesław Miłosz Centennial
- City Profile: Tallinn, Estonia
- Raquel Chalfi, "Double Exposure in the Black Forest"
Q&A: WLT INTERVIEWS
- Ray Taras, "A Conversation with Carsten Jensen"
WEB EXCLUSIVES: MARITIME READING
- READING LIST: More Maritime Reading
- PHOTO GALLERY: Marstal Maritime Museum Photos
- EXCERPT:Vi sejlede bare (2009; We just sailed) by Carsten Jensen
- POETRY: "The Castaway"by Alessio Zanelli
OUTPOSTS: Norwich, Norfolk
- Norwich, Norfolk