Thursday, June 28, 2007

"Things Kept, Things Left Behind"

Jim Tomlinson's fiction and poetry have been published in The Pinch, Five Points, Bellevue Literary Review, Potomac Review, Arts Across Kentucky magazine, and Shenandoah.

He applied the "page 69 test" to his debut collection of stories, Things Kept, Things Left Behind, and reported the following:
Is page 69 of Things Kept, Things Left Behind representative of the rest of the short story collection? Yes, amazingly so. It happens to be the final page of “Things Kept,” one of two title stories.

Things Kept, Things Left Behind is about life’s accumulations and sheddings. These stories, set in working-class, small town America, are stories of human relationships — siblings, husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, even ex-spouses still somehow entangled. At their root, the stories are concerned with the yearning heart. Reading page 69 alone, some sense of this does come through.

That said, I do worry about browsing readers first meeting “poor Wesley Chalk,” a minor character, on that page. Will they understand that he’s simple, that his awkward, ungrammatical way of talking is unique to him, that it isn’t representative of other dialogue? But then I remember — readers are an intelligent lot, good with subtlety, quick to figure such things out. Right?

Okay, context: LeAnn and Cass, adult sisters, have schemed to convince their ailing mother, who lives alone outside town, to sell their dead father’s antique roll top desk. A locked drawer holds old secrets. The mother has resisted so far. In the early morning, LeAnn, confident that she’s finally gained the upper hand with her mother, climbs the hillside path to the house. She meets local laborer Wesley Chalk coming down. For days he’s been cutting and burning fallen trees on a nearby hillside.

From page 69:

“I slept by the fires. Your ma, she worries they’ll burn themselves loose. Me and Donnie, we’re careful. I stayed on anyways so she won’t worry.”

“Good to be careful.” LeAnn inched away up the path.

“Lucky I stayed,” Wesley said, following her now. “I come awake to see your ma
hauling on this old-timey desk. She’s pushing and shoving. But mostly she’s just scuffing up rocks and dirt.”

LeAnn’s head went dizzy, her insides loose.

“She asks will I help lug it over to the side hill. Well, I do, and it is heavy, I should say. When we finally gets it there, she gives it a shove, and it tumbles down onto yesterday’s fire. Sends sparks flying everwhere.”

LeAnn turned unsteadily toward the crackling blaze. But it wasn’t the old desk her eyes sought just then. It was Lonnie she looked for, Lonnie she expected to see tumbling over rocks, through the bright blaze, coming to his feet all scuffed and smudged, coming up grinning on the other side.

“Your ma paid me, too,” Wesley said. “Paid better’n Donnie does.” He pulled a fistful of money from his pocket. “See? Twelve dollars,” he said, spreading the bills. “And two quarters, and a buffalo nickel. She give me this old pearly-handle jackknife, too.”


Sometimes she thinks of herself as a howl. The wail of a coyote, maybe, or a lone banshee, a shriek dying away in the night without reaching ears. Piercing, like something wrenched raw from an orphaned soul. A hollow thing, haunted, a sound that lives on, still shrill in memory long after its echo dies.

As she raced north toward Dayton that morning, LeAnn felt that way.

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Read more about Things Kept, Things Left Behind at Jim Tomlinson's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue