Seattle-based writer Rebecca Brown has already established herself as one of the more promising and original voices in literature today. The End of Youth, her latest collection of seamlessly blended short fiction and essays, follows The Terrible Girls, Annie Oakley’s Girl and The Dogs, also from City Lights.
Straightforward, edgy and witty, then suddenly experimental and dreamlike, her stories shimmer and spark with contradictions. They’re strung together like a loosely assembled memoir, beginning with the very brief “Heaven,” which is actually a vision of two heavens for the narrator’s dead parents. One is a bountiful flower and vegetable garden for her mother, the other a field near a lake for her father.
In Brown’s stories, the infinite is almost always a reflection of an ephemeral, human perspective. Heaven is designed, not by tradition or established myth, but by desire: a mother’s love of gardening, a father’s penchant for hunting and fishing, and a daughter’s grief.
Except for memories of playing Joan of Arc in a childhood game of heroes and knights in “A Vision,” The End of Youth is filled with commonplace magic that turns ordinary people into icons, ordinary objects into talismans, ordinary dialogue into prayer. It’s a recurrent exercise in experiencing the mundane with an intensity and courage that pushes toward the sacred:
I believe what I remember. I believe that what I saw and did continues in a place outside of time, that it remains. I believe that what remains occurs and will again. I believe the vision I was shown, the body I was given. I believe what I desired was made manifest as love. This is what I tell of my religion.
—from “The Vision”
Language as simple and direct as a child’s writing home from summer camp makes these partially fictional tales — which are constantly haunted by a depressive, neurotic mother and a distant, alcoholic father — all the more vivid and real. Brown takes the first person to another level with an openness and presence of mind that make the soul in her work palpable:
Between them my parents had three kinds of cancer — colon, skin, and prostate ... I have no doubt their smoking contributed to, if it didn’t actually cause, these conditions. But I also think, for years their smoking saved them ... He could do something for only himself and imagine he was strong and tough, a hero of the war. She could do something for only herself and imagine she was above it all, unfazed and cool, like a woman in the movies.
—from “The Smokers”
The insights in these “recollections” are stirring, rooted in universal experience. The inevitable pains and scars inflicted on the self by the family or the tribe are healed by the breaking away of mind, the power of reasoning and observation. Here liberation is carried out in the familiar coming of age, as well as the discovery of solidarity in early adulthood and contact, both real and imagined, with first lovers.
In the final lines of “Inheritance,” Brown expresses an acceptance, a retroactive sense of belonging:
I want to keep what they have given me; I want to rid myself of it. I want to end the thing I am of them; I want them not to ever end.
Her words are marked with sadness and surrender, but also are magical signs able to confer their powers on the willing reader. They move, translate and transform with unassuming grace, as if simply telling a story was enough. Enough to change everything.
Norene Cashen writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.