Friday, May 2, 2008

Night Train/Merry Speece/Clifford Garstang/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Rusty Barnes

Night Train (ISSN 1540-5494) is an online journal and print annual that debuted in the fall of 2002. Our web site includes the full text of print issues I-VI in PDF, and from Issue VII on, will publish full issues online on a quarterly basis. During our tenure as a traditional print journal, we received acclaim from sources as diverse as,,, Literary Magazine Review, the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, the New York Times, The Writer, National Public Radio, the Million Writers Award, the Pushcart prize, and many other local and national outlets, on matters relating to our innovative Rail Stop Sponsorship program as well as our published fiction.

Night Train has published many stories over the last six years or so, and all of them have made their marks on me as publisher and editor, but I retain a special fondness for Merry Speece's 'Stone Dog,' because it embodies what I'd like to see as an editor: beautiful and poetic language, and a captivating variant on an old theme. From the first paragraph, "John Clair you do this thing you do this thing you do this thing. Turn over stones and find something alive, pink, and suddenly writhing." The careful attention to rhythm, the headlong repetition, the sudden torque of the period in just the right place--it's just lovely. Then, in the next sentence, the commas slowing the pace, and the apt placement of the often-overused 'suddenly.' She had me by the throat and kept me poised, and this story lurks in my mind even now, five years later, as I read through stories and decide why or why not to publish them. How close do they come to choking off my breath? That's the question we ought to be asking, and like writers fail often in what they write, so too do editors fail in what they accept. Probably 98% of the time. It's a harsh business. Doesn't mean every other story I've published is bad--far from it--it's just that sometimes what we find and publish propels itself forward by main force and lodges in the brain permanently, and I continue to edit because I love to feel that rush. It's not sex; it's not heroin, but buddy it's good when you find it.

Nominated Short Story: "Stone Dog" - by Merry Speece

Review: by Clifford Garstang

Once you let this story (“Stone Dog” by Merry Speece) teach you to read its challenging syntax, the language is exhilarating. Words are dropped, as they are in true consciousness and speech, and the narrator’s thoughts are jumbled, jumping from his menial factory work to his past as a soldier in Vietnam to his family’s history to the new girl who’s caught his attention.

John Clair is a Vietnam veteran who has come back to the dying river town of Pomeroy, Ohio. Laid off from the salt works, he’s now in the plastics factory like everyone else, and is in danger of becoming hardened and stuck, like everyone else. Except that he writes. What he writes isn’t clear, but he has a connection to nature and the past that suggest poetry, a notion that the similarity of his name to the poet John Clare reinforces. He meets Willow Rae, a college girl who he thinks is slumming in Pomeroy and the factory. They share an interest in books and the past and Indian artifacts. He is excited to show her the stone dog he found when he was eleven, just as he was excited at the time to show it to his mother. And so he falls for her, except . . . despite her own humble background she wants to change him, wants to see him reach his potential instead of being stuck in a dead town. He’s offended, and in the end must choose between her and the land to which he is tied.

It is the language that the reader notices first. “Factory women on the line bighearted on Friday night and out of breath from running downhill a long time fling open the door at the bar at the edge of that stringtown, Pomeroy (Excelsior Salt, its picture of a hog).” It follows the stream of John Clair’s consciousness and reflects how he thinks of the town and the people in it. And it’s the language with which he speaks to himself: “Six months since I lost me a good job at Excelsior Salt going down, John Clair, into the brine.” While it can be difficult to decipher at first, the reader learns to follow the rhythms. It may even take a few readings to get it, which most stories don’t earn, but this one rewards the effort.

Then there is the character of John Clair. A veteran of Vietnam, he’s grateful to be alive because he wasn’t sure he’d make it home. In fact he is more attracted to Willow Rae because of the image that came to him when he was lying wounded in a rice paddy in Vietnam. He pictured a poor child picking strawberries, a girl he’d seen when he was younger, and that image pulled him through. In a way, the flesh and blood Willow Rae is what gives him hope in this hopeless town. More than that, though, he’s generally sensitive. The women who work in the factory, including his cousin, are hard-edged and unappealing. But Willow Rae is different. He notices her scent, her eyes, her skin. Especially her eyes.

Another notable feature is the obscure (to me) historical references. John Clair is descended from Arthur St. Clair, the first governor of the Northwest Territories. But there are other real figures from history mentioned here, including frontiersman Simon Kenton, white settler Marmaduke Van Swearingen who became Blue Jacket, a chief among the Shawnee. John Clair himself is tied to that history, as to the land, by the stone dog he found as a boy. It’s why he came back to Pomeroy after the war. It’s why he bristles at the thought of leaving. He and Willow Rae explore an Indian mound together, and that shared interest in the past is the first sign that they are a pair. “Nothin prettier than a matched pair,” John Clair remembers his grandfather telling him, and that’s what John and Willow Rae seem to be. (I confess that a few of the references to local places, named without explanation, disrupted the flow of the story as I puzzled over whether I needed to know what the reference was in order understand the story. This is a minor complaint.)

In the end this is a story about a man who feels very real to me. He knows what he wants and what’s important to him, and he reacts with emotion (anger and confrontation first, then withdrawal) when these things are threatened. His own reaction causes him to reassess his goals and make a choice. And this, along with the inventive use of language, is what makes “Stone Dog” such a strong, memorable story.

Reviewer's Bio:

Clifford Garstang’s story collection, In an Uncharted Country, will be published by Press 53 in September 2009.

He grew up in the Midwest and received a BA from Northwestern University. After serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea, he earned an MA in English and a JD, both from Indiana University, and practiced international law in Singapore, Chicago and Los Angeles with one of the largest U.S. law firms. Subsequently, he earned an MPA in International Development from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and worked for Harvard Law School as a legal reform consultant in Almaty, Kazakhstan. From 1996 to 2001, he was Senior Counsel for East Asia at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where his work concentrated on China, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Garstang received an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte in 2003 and has attended the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences. He is a Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and formerly served as the Fiction Assistant for Shenandoah: The Washington & Lee University Review.

Garstang’s work has appeared in Shenandoah, Whitefish Review, Cream City Review, and elsewhere.

Thanks for visiting Five Star Literary Stories and reading about this short story.

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