Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Eugene Cross: Fires of Our Choosing

The twelve stories in Eugene Cross’s debut collection, Fires of Our Choosing (Dzanc), are strong if not particularly surprising. Largely set among the middle classes of Erie, Pennsylvania, most of these stories chronicle the near-misses of hapless characters trying to make something out of the precious little they are given. A couple of them succeed, many do not, and others are left suspended at the end of the story. On its face, this collection is a return to traditional American storytelling of Carver and company—straightforward, unadorned, unpretentious, and unapologetic. However, each of these stories has a unique investment in its characters that makes them worth reading.

While Cross’s aesthetic terrain is readily familiar, his breadth of protagonists evinces a virtuosic talent for imagining the inner lives of a broad spectrum of characters. The cast of protagonists across these stories includes a sixth-grader responding to the disintegration of his family with violence (“Rosaleen, If You Know What I Mean”), a widower who finds a second life in a casino and its regulars (“The Gambler”), a small-town pool shark who is losing his girlfriend (“Eyes Closed”), a sister coping with the suicide of her schizophrenic brother (“This Too”), and many, many more. These unlinked stories read like dispatches from Middle America, each one ringing with a slightly different timbre, making the collection seem united and full.

By and large, Cross does not look for easy answers, and he shows steadfast courage in writing through complex character dilemmas rather than avoiding them with formal tricks. The result is a collection of stories that are earnest without pulling any punches. In one of the collection’s strongest stories, “The Brother,” the protagonist, a house painter, is pressured into hiring his girlfriend’s “self-medicating” brother to keep him from returning to prison. The first-person narrative alludes fleetingly to the traumatic car crash that led the narrator to stop using drugs, and the story uses this to motivate a “kinship” that the narrator feels with his girlfriends brother who, even if he is still using, “always shows up” for work. “The Brother” mixes the narrator’s own troubled past with the brother’s troubled present, and this conflation leads the narrator to place compassion and identification in lieu of suspicion and sound judgment. When the narrator gets a job painting the mansion of a wealthy widow, he ignores the Cassandra-like warnings of his girlfriend, and even the brother himself.

Throughout these stories, we don’t fault the characters nearly as much as we feel for them. Cross displays a unique talent for bristling reader epistemology against character epistemology to make us feel genuine empathy for his protagonists even as we watch them make poor choices. All the while, the reader knows what red flags are being ignored, but also knows how much the characters want and need the things that are just beyond their grasp. We understand their choices, bad or otherwise, in a way that only fiction can achieve.

At its most lurid and reckless (e.g., “Hunters” or “This Too”), the collection approaches Denis Johnson's Jesus’s Son,and at its most heartbroken and desolate, it brings to mind the fiction of Cheever and Carver. The invocation of touchstones here does not mean that Cross’s work is derivative, but rather that it fills in the familiar shapes of stories in an intricate, deeply-imagined and original way. We care about the characters in these stories not because they are drawn starkly or ostentatiously, but because they are fully and carefully rendered folk. For instance, the protagonist of “Only the Strong Will Survive” is a small-town taxidermist who must win over girlfriend’s son before she agrees to marry him. However, her son is also the son of his high-school nemesis, and the kid is the spitting image of his bully father. The attention and compassion that Cross gives to his characters makes this story tender and funny where it could have been cloying and heavy-handed. This is emblematic of the collection: Cross’s stories are adept at making the reader feel a broad range of emotions without ever telling the reader how to feel.

While most of these stories move along at a steady and predictable clip, there are some that explode off of the page and lodge themselves in the reader’s mind. The harrowing “This Too,” in which a sister cleans out her brother’s apartment after his suicide, stays with the reader like the sting of a punch. “Hunters,” in which a man goes home with a reckless married woman, is devastating. “430” is a concise meditation on the role of mercy and the merciless in a broken marriage. Peppered as these explosions are throughout the collection, the immediacy of these stories adds strong counterbalance to the more restrained stories such as “The Gambler” and “Passengers.”

However, the title story, in which the narrator learns the line between bad luck and bad choices, seems a little slack from too much ambition and a lack of focus. The protagonist is a man who watches his ne’er-do-well friend refuse responsibility for burning down his house while he himself contemplates his own disappointing nature. The use of a peripheral narrator merges two interesting stories into one that is a bit underwhelming, no matter how nice it looks on the cover. They end up in a mess that is vaguely reminiscent of Tobias Wolff’s “Hunters in the Snow,” but not quite as exciting. The characters are lacking, but they are not quite desperate enough to make the story urgent or compelling.

On the whole, Fires of Our Choosing is a strong debut that shows promise for Cross. These tightly-written stories are full of compassion for the decidedly middlebrow characters that populate their pages. By the end of each story, we come away with a more considered and complicated understanding of the world than the one we went in with. Each time Cross’s confident and unadorned prose leads the reader to a new place of wonder and contemplation.

Eugene Cross
Fires of Our Choosing
Dzanc Books, 2012