“This Aint No Normal Fire!” by Gerry Stanek

Fire Cover

Genre: Short Story Collection
Publisher: Bituminous Press
Pub. Date: March 29, 2021

“This Ain’t No Normal Fire!,” is a collection of short stories set in the 20th century. The shorts all revolve around a fictional Pennsylvania coal mining town named Plattsville. This book is the second in a series although it can be read as a stand-alone collection. When I received this Advanced Review Copy (ARC), I saw that the author, Gerry Stanek, received praise on his first Plattsville stories from the respected author, Peter Orner. I was expecting stories that would be similar to Jennifer Haigh’s, “Heat and Light” and “Baker Towers.” Novels that I enjoyed, which are also about America’s industrial coal mining past in Pennsylvania.  Is this a good comparison? It is and it isn’t.

Some stories were what I expected. The author gives us an intimate view of individual marriages, dramas, and violence that play out against the backdrop of a gritty coal-mining town.  I also found something that I was not expecting. This collection had me thinking of the unconventional, often experimental writer, George Saunders. The first story, or possibly it is a prologue, is entitled “Fire.” There are no characters, nor a setting.  The writing seems to be philosophical thoughts written in a stream of consciousness. It gives the reader a hint of the stories’ themes—love, life, survival, and death. 

Next comes, “1922,” which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with mining but still captures the underbelly of some mining workers’ culture, complete with men who like beer, whisky, and partake in wife beating. The main character is an unnamed priest who has a crush, really a sexual obsession, on the beautiful Mrs. Dietrich. She is a parishioner who happens to be married to a brute. It is an interesting story that hits a nerve regarding how we can all be vulnerable without being aware of it. I was surprised that it left me with strong emotions of empathy for the priest.

In “Union Supporter,” we meet John Sokol who will appear along with his eldest son, Joseph, in interconnected stories throughout the book.  In “Supporter,” I hit upon the sort of tale that I have always appreciated: fictional yet filled with facts that were previously unknown to me. We learn that John was concerned about Ku Klux Klan meetings that were happening near his town. The author makes John endearing to the reader by letting us know that naïve John admits that he didn’t know much about the KKK. He only knew that they were troublemakers who hated Catholics. We get a good feel into what makes this character tick. John was born in Poland and found work in the Pennsylvania mines. In the great flu of 1918, John loses his wife leaving him with four young boys. In a search for a mother for his existing brood, he goes to a church social. There he meets his second wife. They have a baby daughter but the father of the baby is questionable. With threadbare writing (the opposite of “Fire”), the author makes sure your sympathies are with John and not with his second wife.

In “Union Riot,” John’s son, Joseph is a young adult.  He helps put out a fire on the lawn of an Italian church that was started by the KKK. “Riot” is not a long short story. Still, it is an expository piece that gets under your skin with limited pages. The author writes on Joesph’s calloused hands fighting the coppers, who were using their billy clubs on those who were trying to put out the fire. He talks of the sort of bravery that can lead young men to an early death. He uses the word ‘fire’ as a metaphor to talk about the abject poverty where people are living in wood shanties without fire for heat or cooking meals. Stanek puts you intimately inside the oppressive Tammany Hall-like politics that took place in the old coal mining towns.

We find the book’s title, “This Ain’t No Normal Fire,” in the story “Gratification.” Here Joseph is at the Polish Legion for a dinner where the attendees are young single Catholics. The event reminded me of the wedding scene in the movie, “The Deer Hunter.” There is a strong flavor of the ethnic background of the guests. Everyone is working class, a bit drunk, and hoping to dance with someone cute. Here we see a darker side of Joseph. Patty, who is a pretty girl at the dinner, catches his eye. Joe is on his best behavior and is a complete gentleman with her. However, when they go to a Halloween party he drinks too much, which brings out his self-doubt, depression, and anger regarding the circumstances of his lifestyle. He thinks about heat, oxygen, and fuel, which is the face of the fire that he cannot escape.  Just as he can never be rid of the black coal dust embedded underneath his fingernails or in his lungs.

Besides coal, the author brings into his damp and dark stories the immigrant experience, religious bigotry, betrayal, love, hate, goodness, evil, and sometimes a bittersweet sort of hope.  I get the feeling that the author is saying that his characters believe that it is better to quietly survive, even if it’s on the bare minimum, than to give up.  For instance, John makes the best of his loveless marriage. I had a hard time reviewing this short story collection. It is well written and reads a bit offbeat. It frequently allows symbolism to tell its tales and is sometimes written in poetic prose.  However, I am someone who enjoys uncomplicated storytelling. What immediately comes to my mind is the classic “How Green Was My Valley,” which was also about a coal mining family. Of course, not everyone can write a future classic. So another example of the type that I enjoy can be found in the memoir and film, “The Coal Miners Daughter.”  So, this book was not a good fit for me. However, this is Stanek’s third novel. I am sure he will find his audience.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) from the author at no cost in exchange for an honest review

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“Daddy: Stories” by Emma Cline

Genre:  Literary Fiction Short Story Collectiondaddy
Publisher:  Random House
Pub. Date:  Sept. 1, 2020

Once again, due to an injury I am writing this review via voice to text. Please forgive any errors.

I wish this short story collection had a different title. “Daddy’” makes it sound like you’re about to read erotica. Thankfully, these stories are not. Maybe Cline wanted the reader to be surprised. I certainly was. What captured my interest when agreeing to read and review this book was its description as “literary short stories.” It’s the word “literary” that sold me. Plus, I appreciate short stories.

What you get in these ten stories are edgy slice-of-life tales that explore human nature. Cline portrays moments in her characters’ lives that reveal the dark parts of themselves that they would prefer to keep hidden. She does this well. Dare I say, there are traces of Joyce Carol Oates in this young author. Connecting all the stories is a father or father-like figure, though they are often not the main character.

One story in the collection, “Marion,” was the winner of the 2014 Plimpton Prize. From its first sentence, the writing is vivid. “Cars the color of melons and tangerines sizzled in cul-de-sac driveways.” Here, Cline takes the reader inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl who does not understand the sexual desires of her 13-year-old best friend. There is a ”Mean Girls” vibe to it, but the reader will find themselves forgiving the older girl since she appears to be at the mercy of her own unstable parents and the questionable boundaries between herself and her father. The short is good but I found “Arcadia” more chilling.

“Arcadia” is the type of story that sticks with you and you really wish it didn’t. An older brother acts as a parent to his 18-year-old sister. The sister is pregnant. Her boyfriend, the protagonist, moves in with her and her brother. The three live in the house the siblings grew up in. The sister and her boyfriend sleep in her childhood bedroom, still decorated as when she was a child. This is the author’s first hint that something might be off with this brother/sister relationship. What is so creepy about this short is that the boyfriend slowly begins to realize that there are inappropriate sexual intimacies between the siblings. He tells his girlfriend ”this is no place to raise a baby.” The power in this short is how the boyfriend chooses to look the other way because he gets sucked into the unhealthy family’s dynamics.

”Son of Friedman” is a sad tale of a father who is, rightly or not, disappointed in his son. George Friedman, a washed-up movie producer, has dinner with an old friend, who still has a thriving acting career. The actor is also the godfather of Friedman’s adult son. The reason for this get-together is that Friedman’s son is having a screening of a short movie he created, a pure vanity project. During dinner, the actor asks Friedman about his godson. Friedman thinks, ”It never even crossed my mind to invite him to their dinner.” With that line, we know what we are about to read. A father who is utterly embarrassed by his son’s project. I thought the author’s talent shines brightest with how she goes deep into the relationship between father and son without ever spelling it out. The father thinks, ”he was always a nervous child.” He often recalls the many expensive drug addiction centers his kid has been in. He never admits his own drinking problem to himself.

In 2017 Cline was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Her perceptions are close to brilliant. With a few more years under her belt, I believe she will get there. Part of what makes this collection so good is that in each story there is some sort of perversity right underneath the surface. You can sniff it but you cannot see it. And what will really scare you is when you recognize some of her characters’ traits in yourself. Well done, Emma Cline.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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