Sunday, January 3, 2016
On the first day of this year, as I was cleaning, organizing and otherwise fondling my massive book collection, I came across a slim paperback that quietly, almost shyly, squeezed its way between larger, louder book-spines. I recognized an old friend. My breath caught and a memory hiccuped to the surface. I pulled out the book from where it was lodged between John Gregory Dunne and Stuart Dybek and stared at the pine tree air freshener on the cover of the advance reading copy I’d received more than a decade ago. Rear View: Stories by Pete Duval.
I reviewed the collection for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004 and though I found fault with a few of the stories, overall I loved it enough to have these happy memories well up in me when I stumbled across the nearly-forgotten paperback on my shelf. This is one reason I love organizing my 11,000-volume library: it allows me to touch past favorites, now dusty and page-wrinkled from humidity.
I immediately set about searching for Pete Duval, starting with Amazon, that long and winding river which delivers all books to our shelves.
Nothing, apart from Rear View.
I Googled, I Facebooked, I sent homing pigeons into the skies.
I learned this about Mr. Duval: Rear View is the only book he’s published (though he’s been writing other short stories and working on some novellas), he lives in Philadelphia and teaches writing and film studies at West Chester University and in Spalding University’s Brief-Residency MFA program, and he takes outstanding photographs. By now, I’d hoped that Rear View would have other company beside it on my bookshelf; but alas, it stands alone. Hey, I understand: life happens and crowds out your writing time, or maybe publishers pass on the next manuscript, or maybe you’re still diligently working hard on that next book and the words are marinating to perfection. After all, my own Fobbit (released in 2012) waits for a shelf companion. As a writer, I know how these things go; as a reader, I wish Duval would put another book out into the world.
For now, all I can do is tell the rest of you about Rear View, in hopes you’ll add it to your own collection. And maybe give Mr. Duval the tiniest encouragement to keep on writing stories that, as Jay Parini says in his Foreword, have “a holy hush.”
Here’s my review as it appeared in the Chronicle:
As the title suggests, hindsight permeates Pete Duval’s short-story collection Rear View. In these dozen stories, characters are always casting nervous glances in a metaphorical car mirror, checking the surrounding traffic and gauging the distances they’ve traveled down life’s highway.
That epiphany could be injected into nearly every one of the other stories in Rear View, a collection that’s alternately bleak and optimistic (though, granted, much of that optimism is forced). Selected as the winner of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize, Rear View tiptoes into Raymond Carver territory (what bleakly optimistic fiction doesn’t?), but then quietly stakes out its own parcel of land.
Duval pulls us into the lives of his characters by filling the book with closely observed details—like a church full of parishioners who murmur Mass “like furniture being moved around on another floor of the building” (“Midnight Mass”) or the hush of a nursing home, TV volume on low: “Jeopardy! ended in a whisper of applause, and the drums and trumpets of the evening news filled the room” (“Wheatback”).
The author writes about “a world coiled mean-tight and waiting to go off in your face if things got too good” in “Something Like Shame.” Wives berate husbands with the cold snap of icicles in their voice, bakery workers get hands caught in machinery, short-tempered bullies brawl in a hospital emergency room. For these characters—predominantly men—it’s a hard life lived in trailer parks, bars, barbershops, burnt-out factory towns and, in the best of the bunch, an industrial bakery. Their collars are blue, their beer is warm and their sex is passionless.
Like another of Duval’s literary forefathers, Andre Dubus, the stories are also streaked with occasional flashes of redemption as lapsed Catholics seek out the solace of the confessional. Rear View closes with “Pious Objects,” in which an aging priest hears the confession of a man responsible for a box of Virgin Mary statues being dumped in the river. The man’s spiritual agony over the tossed-out icons causes the priest to reflect on the simpler days of his youth, a relatively uncomplicated world that now seemed to have vanished forever. The priest gives the man his penance; but after he leaves, the burden remains: “For hours the heaviness stayed with him. It was evening before Father Gaston emerged from the curtained stall of the confessional, long after he had sent the other man out into the world with a clear conscience.”
Each of Duval’s characters is weighed down by something—unrequited love, faded dreams, alcoholism, dying parents—and even though lip service is given to the redemption of religion, people like the narrator of “Scissors” can never truly be happy in their circumstances: “I was sitting in Renny St. Cyr’s barbershop, looking out at the textile mills across the highway and the big clock without hands. I hadn’t been home to New Bedford in years. But I was out of work. My wife had left me. I had no savings, and at the age of thirty-one no choice but to move in with my mother until—her words—‘something turned up.’”
As interesting as these down-and-depressed characters are, Rear View doesn’t always live up to its early promise. Some of the stories are, frankly, flat as beer left out overnight, and the collection would have benefited by the author or his editors dropping stories such as “Welcome Wagon,” a vignette featuring a volatile character from another, better story; or “Fun With Mammals,” which finds the narrator baby-sitting for a narwhal strapped to a flatbed heading north toward Canada. At times, Duval doesn’t trust his writing enough not to shove epiphanies down our throats.
However, when he’s relaxed and running at full throttle—as in “Bakery,” “Impala,” “Pious Objects” and the title story—Duval is able to get under the grimy fingernails of working-class Americans and capture exactly what it is about contemporary life that drives us to distraction, drink and depression.
Rear View is a confident, hard-muscled debut from a writer who knows how to handle the wheel even while flicking glances up at the mirror where all those miles recede behind us.