Pegasus Books, 2011, $25
Pegasus Books, 2011, $25
The Uninnocent, the first collection of short fiction by acclaimed novelist and Bard professor Bradford Morrow, is a latticework of strife and doom upon which glimmering buds of insight open. In “Tsunami,” a news-addicted Methodist woman, secure in her rationale for killing her swaggering, blowhard husband, describes the cycle of life with mordant clarity: “Dark before, dim during, black afterward.”
Sins of childhood, of inexperience, or of pride and vanity do not simply disappear for Morrow’s line-crossers—and justice hobbles its path with a cogent yet not entirely scrutable agenda. A perpetrator of incest is destroyed years afterward by his middle-aged sister; in another story, a bullying brother is drowned; in yet another, grandma’s know-it-all boyfriend plays the parenting role with two much force and is shot. Readers of this author’s seductive, symbol-layered prose are not likely, however, to spend too much time weighing the victims’ faults and scratching their heads over the moral calculus. His protagonists have a convincing quality, and we are lulled by their quasi-objective analyzing of their own circumstances.
At the same time, we come to expect an authorial ruse, and the sudden turnabouts can be quite rich. “All the Things That Are Wrong with Me,” the tale of an animal hoarder whose mountain lion escapes and attacks a child, is told in the form of an essay that has been assigned by a psychiatrist. The young narrator cannot repress his indignation: “The kid lived, but poor Kitty was destroyed for no good reason….A crackhead lawyer and some wiggy psychiatrist who steered me here so I could hang out with all you bozos, doesn’t mean that my menagerie was a crazy idea. Far from it—I think I was well on my way to creating a small piece of heaven there. That I couldn’t pull it off is just one more of the things that are wrong with me.”
The worlds Morrow delves are painfully insular and microcosmic. The young man who commits fratricide in “The Hoarder” escapes punishment and finds his small piece of heaven running a miniature golf course and collecting snow globes. In “Gardener of Heart,” an archaeologist at the funeral of his twin sister recalls his life’s most intimate moment being the time he telephoned her upon his Greco-Roman discovery of the bones of a mother cradling a baby preserved in earthquake rubble.
In the book’s final story, “Lush”—an eloquent rendering of genteel alcoholism—the sober Ivy offers this observation: “Isn’t it crazy how stupid young people are, and how inevitable is the downfall, the comeuppance, how when we’re young we know we’re smart and when we’re older we know we’re not, and how there must be an instant when the transition takes place.”
In keeping with her namesake, the dark-leafed, traversing plant that can survive for hundreds of years, Ivy, whose face was scarred in a booze-engendered auto wreck, has an elevated vantage point. Her take on the linkage of people and events has a degree of plausibility not found in the book’s other characters. Her opinion on youth serves as the story collection’s punctuating statement. Indeed, one may feel enjoined to turn back and redirect the empathy expended on the array of lost souls and lonely hearts encountered in the previous pages.
Readers of The Uninnocent, stirred to thoughts of their own transition from innocence, may feel a need to remind themselves that their own lives are larger and less static than these perfectly realized fictional ones.