Thursday, October 6, 2011

Luminous Mysteries: In This Light: New and Selected Stories by Melanie Rae Thon

You don’t read Melanie Rae Thon’s short stories so much as you experience them.  Her characters are junkies, vagrants, and castoffs; they’re lonely Vietnam vets, concentration camp survivors, and Civil War slaves; and for the space of 30 or 40 pages, they are you and you are them.  Once you start any story in her latest collection In This Light, you are immediately pulled into the current of Thon’s energetic and uncompromising language.

Thon writes clean-yet-complicated prose which borders on spoken-word poetry.  It’s heartbreaking in its details, dazzling in its rhythm.

Look, for instance, at these lines from “Nobody’s Daughters” which put us in the desperate, dirty lives of homeless teenagers:
      Let me tell you what my sister owned.
      In her pocket, one vial of crack, almost gone. In her veins, strangers’ blood. She possessed ninety-six pounds. I want to be exact. The ninety-six pounds included the weight of skin, coat, bowels, lung; the weight of dirt under her nails; the weight of semen, three men last night and five the night before.
      The ninety-six pounds included the vial, a rabbit’s foot rubbed so often it was nearly hairless, worn to bone.
      Around her wrist she wore her own hair, what was left of it, what she’d saved and braided, a bracelet now. In her left ear, one gold hoop and one rhinestone stud, and they didn’t weigh much but were included in the ninety-six pounds.

In This Light gathers Thon’s greatest hits from her two previous collections Girls in the Grass (1991) and First, Body (1997) and adds three new stories.  This was my first introduction to Thon’s work (she’s also written four novels: Sweet Hearts, The Voice of the River, Iona Moon,and Meteors in August) and I felt like an unwashed sinner wandering into an evangelist’s revival tent at the height of his sermon, blasted by the heat of salvation.

The religious analogy isn’t too far off, actually.  Even though many of Thon’s characters lead hard lives on the fringe of society, they yearn for something better for themselves—a purity, a holiness.  In “Iona Moon” the titular character—a teenage farm girl in White Falls, Idaho who finds her salvation through sex in the backseat of cars—declares to her mother: “I get this desire, you know.  It’s so dark out here at night, just our little lights and the black fields and the blacker hills.  I want to see a whole blaze of lights, all the streetlamps going on at once, all the houses burning—like something’s about to happen.  You have to believe something’s going to happen."

For as much as the stories are about spirituality and, as the collection’s title implies, inner light, Thon never lets the reader forget our souls are housed in the confines of bodies.  She is intimate and earthy in her approach to the intersection between spirit and flesh.  In "First, Body" Sid Elliot, a recovering alcoholic who cleans up after the dead arrivals in the emergency room, is left alone in the morgue with the corpse of a morbidly-obese woman.  He is tasked with moving her from the gurney to the cold steel slab.  He vows he’ll be "the last person alive who will touch her with tenderness," but when he tries to lift her 326-pound body, he’s thrown off balance and crumples to the floor, smothered by the unbelievable weight of skin and organs: “He has to crawl out from under her, has to prod and shove at her thick flesh, has to claw at her belly to get a breath.”  You’re forgiven if you find as much humor as horror in that scene with poor Sid.

In “Heavenly Creatures,” a “delinquent mother” living in a trailer near Kalispell, Montana gives shelter to a horde of homeless children.  Here again Thon writes scenes that sound like they were spliced from a horror movie:
      There was a dump in the ravine behind Didi’s trailer, The Child Dump, she called it, because sometimes it seemed the children just kept crawling out of it. They glued themselves together from broken sleds and headless dolls and bits of fur and scraps of plastic. Their bones were splintered wood. Their hearts were chicken hearts. Their little hands were rubber.
      She expected them to stop one day—she thought there might be nine or ten or even forty—but they just kept rising out of the pit.

Even though I’ve been quoting some hardcore moments from In This Light, you should understand these are merely the weights which ground the stories in reality.  The entire collection is coated in a style which is expressionistic and highly internalized.  Put simply, Thon’s stories exist on a different plane than most fiction you’ll read.  The language is breath and smoke, keenly tuned to matters of redemption and healing.  At the end of one story, I made a note in the margin: “These stories are prayers, petitions to God for understanding and clarity.”  But that spiritual light of knowledge remains elusive here, just as it does in real life.  As one character says in “Heavenly Creatures,” The dead speak in riddles and leave us to imagine.

The epigraph Thon has chosen for the book, a quote from Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano, neatly sums up what I’ve been trying to say here:
Does the light descend from the sky, or rise out of us? That instant of trapped light…reveals to us what is unseen, what is seen but unnoticed…It shows us that concealed within the pain of living and the tragedy of dying there is a potent magic, a luminous mystery that redeems the human adventure in the world.
Thon is superb at capturing those ethereal interstices in our crowded lives.  Far too few of us bother to look for the fleeting light of grace or pause to hear the under-hum of love.  But Thon wants us to pay attention to those moments.  Like Iona Moon, the author wants us to see the blaze of streetlamps going on all at once, revealing our capacity for redemption, forgiveness and salvation.

These stories, for all the despair at their iron-hard cores, are bathed in a sense of hope.  You read them, and then you read them again.  And again.  Each time, there’s that same light, lifting sensation in your chest, the words carrying you up and up to new places every time.

1 comment:

  1. "breath and smoke" - the stories sound amazing. wonderful review.