Friday, July 3, 2009


A short story by Richard Bausch

Preface to the reviews
Campbell eLiterary Review is, as you know if you are reading this, a relatively new venture, begun with the idea of making available sources of literature not known to most people. By ‘reviewing’ fiction published online, we hope to point our readers to a vast and underutilized resource. But, of course, not all fiction published online is worth the reader’s time and energy. So, your editors at CeR, writers themselves, seek out (at least some of) those pieces we feel will reward readers for the time they devote.

In this process, we have come to realize that we, as individuals, look for and appreciate different things in the fiction we read. This is not surprising at all, but our concern is that should you read a review by one of us lauding a given story for its structure or voice or story line, you may not agree with that particular reviewer about that particular piece, whereas given a review of a different story by a different reviewer, you might find that review to be very insightful and appreciate having been directed to that story.

After some discussion, we decided that it would be an interesting experience to have all three of us review the same story, thus giving our readers the opportunity to evaluate the differences between us as reviewers. This is not to discourage anyone from reading the stories selected by any one of us, but may help our readers decide which of us most parallels their own tastes, whittling down (so to speak) the offerings we post to those most likely to be appreciated by the individual reader. We hope that this may be of help to anyone faced with choosing what to read on the basis of reviews posted on CeR. At the very least, we felt that it would be of great interest to us as reviewers to see how differently we might review the web offerings available. The three reviews that follow are of the same story, “Blood,” by Richard Bausch.


Review by Max Gordon
Setting: various parts of Memphis, Tennessee
Protagonist: Walker Clayfield; 24 year old self-employed partner (with his older brother) in a “subcontracting business”
Narrator: 3rd person, limited omniscient
Tense: Present

Walker Clayfield and his older brother, Max, partner in a business that has come on hard times. There isn’t enough work to keep them busy, but Max has other things to pursue anyway, namely the completion of a boat that was started in his back yard by their deceased father. This leaves Walker with more free time than is healthy for someone as conflicted as he is.

Walker’s conflict results from the unhappy fact that he has fallen in love with his sister-in-law, Max’s wife, Jenny. Max, on the other hand, seems to have fallen out of love with her, in favor of his obsession with the unfinished boat, “Free At Last.”

Jenny, presumably because she still loves her husband, suffers from being displaced as the focus of his attention. Walker, torn between his filial love for his older brother and his own, deeply secret, obsession with Jenny, sees this suffering and suffers with her. At first. As the story progresses, however, his obsession gains the upper hand and he wants to replace his brother as the object of Jenny’s love. His acknowledgement of this desire in himself only deepens the conflict he feels, and results first in anger at himself, then anger at Max, and finally (when he begins to believe Jenny is involved with another man) anger at Jenny, herself, and the other man.

Ultimately, this is a story that illustrates the philosophical belief that for most of us, reality is a mental construct we put upon the world. So certain are we of the reality that we construct, that our actions can have disastrous consequences for others and for ourselves. At ~14,000 words, this is a major piece of work. It is carefully constructed and well written, with very few problems (one of which is the transformation of a water pump into a fuel pump). I have long been of the opinion that nothing belongs in a ‘short story’ except that which either develops the character or moves the action. And for that reason was glad to see that the editors at Narrative Magazine did not include it in the short story genre, instead labeling it “a story.” While there is much dispute about what length constitutes a short story – definitions vary but generally include works between 1,000 and 20,000 words (and this one certainly falls into that span) - by my definition, the inclusion of the details of the characters Ron and May Podrup, and the amount of time spent unsuccessfully trying to develop them as characters took the piece beyond acceptable short story length.

There are also a number of unusual situations in the piece that caused me to pause. Among those are the great disparity in the ages of the three brothers. Sean, the youngest, has just turned 15. Walker is 24. Max is 14 years older, which puts him at 38. This means that their mother’s, Minnie’s, reproductive life spanned 23 years, during which she gave birth to only three children. This might be normal if the boys had different fathers, but they don’t. Another situation (granted, it is demanded by the story line’s use of the boat in the back yard) is that when Max had won Jenny’s hand, he was still living at home with his mother and brothers. He bought a “small house in a little neighborhood of World War II housing over by the river and fixed it up for his mother and younger brothers to live in.” The “old place on Highpoint Terrace” presumably belonged to Minnie, and yet she agreed to move into a smaller place with her two remaining sons, displacing them from where they grew up, and relinquishing her home of long standing to the newlyweds. I found this, if not unbelievable, at least puzzling.

I read this online first, then downloaded the .pdf file to read a second time, and finally printed it out to do my critique. It is certainly worth the three readings I gave it. On the basis of the obvious care in writing, and the author’s ability to believably create actions that describe a character whose conflict is generated by love, lust, and jealousy, the inkwell is four fifths full.

Review by Susanne MacDougall
An unfinished boat and a neglected wife are at the center of this story. Max returns to his unhappy, childhood home with his young and pretty wife to complete the restoration of his deceased, alcoholic father's boat.

Max labors on the ribs of what could one-day become a seafaring vessel and neglects his wife in the process. Max's younger brother, Walker decides to help the wife but soon desires for more from her.

The wife is detached and it is never clear where she stands as the story weaves a painfully slow, evolving web of these relationships: Max with the boat, and Walker with Max's wife.

The story first appears to be about love, but soon any noble ideas are lost and develop into obsessions as Max then Walker are both consumed. The story makes it clear that obsessed people cannot be satisfied, let go, give, receive, and cannot move on. The cost to the afflicted and those around them is terrible and it warns that Max and Walker’s fate can be ours unless we learn to live in balance with what is happening now.

Obsession is more prevalent than love these days. Obsession perfectly fits with our commercialized society, which encourages us to get more things, a better life, a better job, the perfect mate, or follow an impossible dream at any cost.

This is a well-crafted story worth the time it took to read it. The story would be even better and tighter if it wasn’t burdened with unnecessary and non-essential details and characters.

Review by Lawrence Reeve
Forbidden love is a rich vein in literature, and while Blood doesn't mine enough to make you wealthy, you will feel better off having read it.

Walker is caught in the middle of his family, between his teenage brother who needs Walker to be a father, and the older Max, who is picking up where their dead father's craziness left off. Even to the point of acquring his father's obsession with building a wooden boat, much to the dismay of the whole family, especially Max's wife, Jenny.

Walker feels Jenny's pain, and her loneliness, and her sense of missed opportunities. No surprise, since Walker is in the same emotional boat. He has a crush that can't be stiffled and it pushes him over the edge. The edge, in this case, is any chance at happiness.

Like many modern short stories the emphasis is on the tone, here. I tend to dislike stories which seem content to simply reveal an incident, sustituting style for any cause and effect action. Fortunately, Walker moves from ignorance to knowledge (or maybe, knowledge to ignorance) like the character in a novel, a movement which I find more satisfying.

But, moody preoccupation is the first order of business for the whole family as we follow Walker until he finally decides to act on his feelings toward Jenny. The fact that the act is misdirected and self-destructive doesn't surprise, and therein the story delivers a moral.

Not that this is a morality play. Bausch delivers insight into what it is like to be in this state of desire without an acceptable target. The desperate hopelessness will ring true for anyone in that situation.

The ending has the mandatory ambiguity of the modern short story, apparently, lack of commitment affects authors, too. My complaints are minor, however. There is much to be appreciated in this powerfully told story. After all, who can resist forbidden love?

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