Reviewed by Beatriz Terrazas, a Carve Literary Services consultant.
In his new collection, Songs for the Deaf: Stories, Fleming introduces us to cloud-reading seers, hoop-playing saviors, ardor-inducing aliens (yes! really!), and more. These characters ask, “What if … ?”, then proceed to take us on a fantastic journey to answer the question. Some of the stories are straightforward, while others veer closely to magical realism, and still others border on science fiction. But no matter the premise, Fleming’s mastery makes believers of us.
He knows when to carry us along on language simple as a slow-flowing river. He knows when to jolt us on the rapids of metaphor. And he knows when to fully submerge us in sensory description. For instance, the passage in “Cloud Reader,” when a crowd takes a prisoner:
What are they yelling? He tries now to understand, to pick out a word or two that might anchor him. He can’t. His senses have dulled. The sounds are warm mists on his cheeks and neck. Outside, the fog’s wet motes glow like a billion miniature crystals collecting the faint light.
And in Chomolungma, the exquisite rendering of Everest’s base camp can only be called art: “The mountains are a huddled mass of white-robed gods, the upper-level winds blowing auras off their pointed skulls. The cold thin air dissolves like a wafer on the tongue.”
Fleming is the author of the novel The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman and the serial novel-in-emails The Book I Will Write. He also wrote Fearsome Creatures of Florida, and his writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, North American Review, Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, and Carve. Every story in this new collection evolves so organically that, no matter the ending, our response is, “Why yes, of course.” In “Weighing of the Heart,” a widower watches as a woman floats above the earth, silhouetted against an old drive-in theater screen:
She moves in the light like she’s part of some old dance number. She jumps and kicks and cartwheels and somersaults and never once touches the ground. … I crouch, take a deep breath, and jump up with all I’ve got. I somehow get hold of one of those thin, dusty ankles. … And this time I won’t let go.
The sense of longing is universal; even those of us who’ve yet to experience this depth of loss understand.
Even the grittiest story in the book has flashes of humor, with a couple of them delving into satire and black comedy. “Chomolungma” features a dysfunctional family trying to summit Everest together because, as the father explains, he couldn’t let the family fall apart:
After your mother here put her hand down the pants of of the office temp in plain view of of pretty much anyone driving slowly past the office window, and not even spying but casually glancing inside … .
And “The Day of Our Lord’s Triumph,” featuring a teen misfit, is so funny in its irreverence it bears reading multiple times:
Our Lord knew the dangers of His journey through the neighborhood. For all around Him dwelt his Sworn Enemies, and the Sworn Enemies did taunt Our Lord continually with epithets and condemnations. The Sworn Enemies did sometimes pour glue through the vents of His locker at school. They casually tripped Him in the hallways. They were clever in their ways, feigning clumsiness or momentary spasms that sent their feet and elbows flying into Our Lord’s path and uttering epithets beyond the hearing of authorities. Thus did they torment our Lord. Yet, Our Lord did persevere.
Finally, although my personal favorite was “The Day of Our Lord’s Triumph,” the title story, “Songs for the Deaf,” is a humorous take on perseverance and the power of love. It goes to show that while life isn’t fair, sometimes the good guys do win.
Songs for the Deaf, by John Henry Fleming. Burrow Press, March 2014; $15
The spring 2014 Premium Edition of Carve features an excerpt from “Chomolungma.”