Saturday, April 23, 2011

Tours of Duty in the Jungle of Heartbreak: Michael Parker's Don't Make Me Stop Now

Michael Parker's new novel, The Watery Part of the World, hits bookstores on Tuesday.  I haven't read the advance copy Algonquin Books sent to me (and, as I sit in the long shadow of my towering To-Be-Read stack, I'm not sure how soon I'll get to it), but if it's anything like Parker's 2007 collection of short stories, Don't Make Me Stop Now, it will be well worth your time and investment.  (Click on the cover for a larger image--isn't that a thing of beauty?)

The Watery Part of the World is set on the barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina and spans more than a hundred years, beginning in 1813 when pirates attack the ship carrying Aaron Burr's daughter Theodosia and she is left for dead, only to be nursed back to health by an island hermit.  Another strand of the novel tells the story of Woodrow, a black man, and Maggie and Whaley, two white sisters, who in 1970 are the last remaining residents of their island.  Kirkus Reviews compared the novel to William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor--words which instantly make a ka-ching! sound in my head.

The plot sounded vaguely familiar, so I pulled Don't Make Me Stop Now off my shelf and, sure enough, one of the collection's short stories ("Off Island") seems to be the genesis for this novel.  While I thought "Off Island" was one of the weaker entries in the book, that doesn't mean it was bad, only that its flame was a small flicker compared to the blazing inferno of creativity on the other pages.

Here's what I had to say four years ago in a review which originally appeared at January Magazine...

*     *     *     *

I have never burned down my house in the name of love, but in his new collection of stories, Michael Parker helps me understand why a guy named Sanderson takes a match to his place and incinerates all his belongings except for his car and the clothes on his back: all because he is still slavishly in love with his ex-girlfriend.  In "The Right to Remain," planted midway through Don't Make Me Stop Now, Sanderson spends his cold nights parked at the curb in front of his old girlfriend's house in his "martyrmobile," making lists of all the things he should have done (but didn't) to prevent her from going off with another man.
There were no other cars out, only cats slinking and screeching, and once he spotted a possum waddling around the side of the house where she kept the trashcans, and he was glad to share the night with these stealthy creatures who did their business in the dark. He spoke to them warmly, and they offered their condolences, as if they knew just from looking at the angle of his repose in the front seat of the Ford how much misery he was shouldering.
When burning down his house doesn't capture the ex-girlfriend's attention, Sanderson sits and stares at her house, torturing himself with thoughts of what's going on behind the curtains.  He eventually takes action, but it's a little too late and a little too feeble -- something we already know long before a sympathetic cop hauls him away.

Sanderson is just one of many forlorn and lovelorn characters Parker sets before us in Don't Make Me Stop Now.  With a style that's unadorned to the point of being deceptively simple, Parker injects the reader under his characters' skin, making us feel the pain of anxiety, heartbreak, loneliness and miserable hope.

In "I Will Clean Your Attic," a woman, despondent over her husband leaving her, hires a handyman to haul away his belongings, only to find that the handyman is harboring a secret of his own.  In "What Happens Next," the first and perhaps best story in the book, Charlie Yancey measures his commitment to prospective girlfriends against their reaction to the story of how he killed his grandmother by playing Humble Pie's "Hot 'N' Nasty" on a car stereo (trust me, it makes hilarious sense in Parker's hands).

In another of the book's gems, "Muddy Water, Turn to Wine," James is making love with a one-night stand named Erin while listening to ZZ Top when she gets a phone call.  Erin comes back into the room and tells him that her father just died, then she pins him against the bed and continues to have sex with him.  On a whim, James decides to take a road trip and drive her to the funeral.  The story, like many others in Don't Make Me Stop Now, gathers its energy from the ironies and incongruities Parker inserts at right angles throughout the narrative.

Not all of the stories succeed.  One about the sighting of a mythic nightbeast called Dogman, never really gels; another, "Off Island," about the three last residents of an island off North Carolina's coast, just doesn't fit in with the rest of the collection.  But those are detours in a book that otherwise stays on track, bumping along the rough road of Carveresque blue-collar desperation.

In "The Golden Age of Heartbreak," this miserable fellow sums up the collection best:
People have no sympathy for the brokenhearted because it's what they fear the most. They pretend it's as minor and obligatory as having your wisdom teeth pulled, getting your heart ripped from your chest, having feral mutts tug-a-war the bloody organ in your kitchen while you lean white-veined against the rusty refrigerator, drowning in schmaltzy string arrangements.
Haven't we all been white-veined at some point in our lives?  Parker knows the majority of us have gone through life staring at silent telephones, awkwardly shifting from foot to foot at the edge of a half-empty dance floor, grinding our teeth as we lie sweaty-headed on the pillow thinking about all the Lovely Desirable Ones we let slip away.  This collection is full of rootless, longing characters who walk around with holes in their hearts looking for the right person to fill that shape.  Who can't relate to people like that?  After all, as Parker writes, we're all just on "extensive tours of duty in the jungles of heartbreak."

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