Thursday, November 13, 2008

TQR/Michael John Grist/Melissa Palladino/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Theodore Rorschalk

Quoth Theodore Rorschalk:

As I’ve stated many times on TQR, and speaking before the UN General Assembly, "Internet-based publications with print mentalities shall not stand!" Furthermore, they are monoliths--monoliths without the benefit of Arthur C. Clarke’s fictitious construct’s ability to pass on technological enlightenment to their users--prolific on the Web as sand in the skies over the windswept Mojave; the rule, wherein TQR is the exception.

Dynamic where other Web publications are static, TQR challenges the notion that capital judgments must be kept sacred and unknowable as the obfuscatory term for tetragrammaton. TQR comes down off the bookshelf almost every day to give you bits and bytes and sometimes mouthfuls of information, whereas after their new capital gains are posted and the excitement dies (a week, give or take), the majority of e-zines go back up on the shelf to vet their capital in monastic obscurity and silence, while the fruits of their venture capitalists’ labor ripens, then rots from lack of cultivation and care.

What can I say about this work? The dialogue is salty as a damask whore. The world it takes place in has a disturbingly familiar foreignness that is never forced. It reverberates with verisimilitude without being portentous. You could call it allegorical biblical fantasy or literary tour de force. I call it simply a damn fine read.

Nominated Short Story: "Celibate Jayne the Hammerhand" - Michael John Grist

Reviewed: by Melissa Palladino

In a topsy-turvy world where the largest of whales is named after the smallest of birds, and the holiest of church organs is named after a South American metal band, a whaling captain with lethal silver hammerhands bashes his way out of the belly of a whale and reports that he has seen a human inside--a human who turns out to be a child with golden skin.

Michael John Grist successfully uses an “opposites” concept, slightly exotic dialog, and at times sing-songy description to draw the reader through to the main attraction--a powerful and moving story of redemption. This is a story where the humans are zoomorphized--Jayne’s crew resembles nothing less than a flock of raucous seagulls, and his first mate, “half-headed Elspeth,” bounces around the beached whale, her “big chin wagging with glee,” like an excited and intensely loyal dog. The children in town are “ratfer” children, and Jayne himself could be seen as a human version of a hammerhead shark--a lethal loner, in spite of the devotion of his crew.

The named in the story are not whom you would expect. The crew except for Elspeth is anonymous, the townspeople are anonymous, and perhaps most tellingly, the wife and son Jayne left behind are simply “the lass and the lad.” The named are the whales, in a flood of identification when Jayne finds himself again out at sea--Bride’s and Pygmy Rights, Humpbacks, Left Blues, Mesoplodonts, Brontochal Giants, Pterodal Fins and more.

This emphasis on the named importance of the whales gives the reader his or her first clue about where this story is going, because up until this point the plot tension has been whether or not the crew could strip the blubber from the whale, melt it down, barrel and ship it to the city before the coming storm breaks around them--and the overriding concern of Jayne and Elspeth to identify and get the child out of the dead whale before this happens.

Who is the child? The manifest lists him as Damaris, the son of the first mate on the ironically named shipwrecked “Salubrious,” and he has been inside the whale for five years. But he is also much more than that, as Jayne finds out when he attempts to rescue him from the dead whale that has been washed back out to sea and is sinking into the deep. For to Jayne’s one whale-calling note, Damaris can sing a symphony, and it’s to this symphony that all the whales respond--including the biggest whale Jayne has ever seen, the behemothic Ptarmigan.

The Golden Child, in legend, is a magical child foretold to save the people of the land from evil. In this story, he is a bridge between two species, and I would argue that he’s trying to save both species from evil--the whales from being mindlessly slaughtered, and the humans from the psychic consequences of murder. Jayne finally understands while listening to their song that the creatures he has hunted and brutally destroyed are capable of profound grief--and further, that the very whale giving him life-saving succor is the mother of the whale he has just killed and dismantled. And on All Hallows eve, when the dead revisit the mortal world, the body of this mother’s child floats back up to the surface so Jayne can view it through the lens of his new understanding.

Our Jayne is celibate because he has already harmed his own child through his continuous absence--an unnecessary absence, as we discover, because he has money to spare from his whaling success. He refuses Elspeth’s tender advances because he will not get her with child, only to leave them behind on shore--her suggestion that she whale with child horrifies him. His self-induced isolation is part penance, part protective measure, and his realization that he has not only harmed but murdered a child, albeit of another species, drives him to do what he can to atone.

Jayne returns to the town, and breaks into his own warehouse. In a long evening that stretches into night, he empties barrel after barrel of the newly acquired whale oil off the docks and into the ocean. Jayne here resembles nothing less than Jesus going through the stations of the cross--each quarter-ton barrel he carries to the dock cuts his skin and by the time he carries his thirtieth barrel to the water’s edge he is leaving a trail of blood behind him. His crew, like the disciples of Jesus, are at first amazed to see him, then angry, and finally leave him, disgusted by his actions. Elspeth, like Veronica, offers him comfort by wiping his face with a white towel.

Grist makes use of italics to shift Jayne’s midnight labor, somewhere between the 30th and the 40th barrel, into the realm of folklore, and we understand that this is now a story that has been passed down from generation to generation in a society that has moved beyond whaling. This explains both the embroidered language (“the char-houses and damask docks” / “the roar of their moany groany ruck”) and the graphic descriptions of violence--not too different from our own Brothers Grimm.

Grist is a British/American writer living in Japan--one of the few countries that persists in pursuing whaling as an industry. It is easy to be outraged by their actions--but an honest citizen of just about any country can find similar research, trade or industrial policies involving creatures deemed to be just as intelligent, and with as complex an emotional life as whales.

Note: "Celibate Jayne the Hammerhand" is more fun than Ulysses to puzzle out. What follows are details that aren’t quite relevant to the storyline, but add to the richness of the tale.

The crew isn’t named--with the notable exception of Shume and Fralla, who are sent to back to the city for more men.

Shume and Fralla are the principle ingredients in an “eau de vie” liquor made by Serbo-Croatian nuns--shume being pine needles and fralla being mushrooms. Fralla is also the name of a Swedish breakfast sandwich. So Grist is not only comparing the crew to seagulls, he individualizes two of them into something even lesser--a pine needle and a mushroom (or a breakfast sandwich, take your pick).

The meaning of Elspeth is “consecrated to God.” The meaning of Jayne is “God is gracious.” Damaris means “to tame, gentle.”

Fans of Tolkien might think of another possible source for “Hammerhand”--the legendary Helm Hammerhand after which Helm’s Deep was named. According to the story, the king was so named because he killed a rival with a single blow of his fist--and when forces were brought against him he would steal out under cover of winter storms, enter the enemy camps, and kill soldiers with his bare hands.

As mentioned at the top of the review, Grammaton (a church/organ in Grist’s story) is a heavy metal band in real life. Here is a quote from their website: “There’s a thousand of ways to call the Devil, and one of them is called Grammaton.”

Reviewer's Bio:

Melissa Palladino holds degrees from Colby College and Maine College of Art, and lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Night Train, Inkwell, Boston Literary Magazine, Vocabula, elimae, and elsewhere. Writers working on craft can find her show with Randall Brown on beginnings and endings online at The Writing Show. Melissa is employed as a private chef in Beverly Farms and blogs about her obsession with cooking all 1,300 recipes in The Gourmet Cookbook.

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


tqr said...

My thanks to you TJ on having someone as insightful and delightful as Ms. Palladino do the review! It was a real learning experience. I had no idea I had published such a weighty piece of fiction. Again, thank you!

T. J. Forrester said...


I appreciate the kind words.

Michael John Grist said...

Michael John Grist here- the author of the story in question. I'd like to thank everyone involved in both hosting and reviewing this story.

TQR- For giving the story a second look-over after edits were made, for hosting it on the TQR site, and then for submitting it to this site- thank you sir!

Mr. Forrester- For putting the story up here, and as TQR said- for putting Ms. Palladino onto the review, thank you.

And of course- to the reviewer, Ms. Palladino. As TQR said- it was a very insightful review, with great research, I'm so glad you saw so much in the story- thank you for taking the time to really get into Jayne's world.

All the best,
Michael John Grist.