Monday, December 1, 2008

Barrelhouse/Mike Landweber/Barry Wade Simms/Short Story Review

Nominating editors: Dave Housley and Joe Killiany

Barrelhouse is a literary magazine that, as we like to say, “bridges the gap between serious art and popular culture.” What does that mean? It means we publish literary fiction, poetry, and essays, pretty much like everybody else (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But we’ve also published poetry about giving Ed Asner a spongebath, a Very Special Patrick Swayze Section (issue 2), a dive bar section (issue 5), a roller derby section (issue 6), strange literary thingamagigs, essays on Magnum, P.I., The Hills, overuse of the word “rocks,” MTV, Godzilla, and other stuff. We also try to publish interviews with artists you wouldn’t normally see in literary magazines, like Ian MacKaye, Malcolm Gladwell, Chuck Klosterman, the Hold Steady, and the Drive by Truckers (before they were touring together, that is). We publish two print issues a year, and we aim for four online issues a year, as well.

I don’t know that there’s a typical Barrelhouse story—we’ve published everything from straight realism to stranger, more experimental prose poems to stories that border on science fiction—but if there’s one trait (I guess that’s the right word) common to most Barrelhouse stories it’s an effective, slightly offbeat take on a fairly common aspect of the world: breaking up with a spouse, losing a job, being a parent, paying the rent, etc. However, what makes these stories work, for us at least, is that they aren’t offbeat simply for the sake of being offbeat—they generally relate to their characters and situations in a way that serves to subtly get at something (an emotion, an idea, a desire, etc) that’s bigger and less defined than what the story seems to deal with on the surface. What’s more, most of the stories we publish tend to do all of this in a humane and funny way, which is an incredibly hard feat to pull off.

"Red," by Mike Landweber, which was published in our most recent online issue, is a really good example. At base, it’s a story about a guy who decides to leave the neighborhood. That’s about as common a situation as I can imagine; it can apply to people who grew up in suburbia, in a farm town, or in a city and got to wanting out. However, by adding the character in the car, the guy who simply stays put—for years—because of a broken red light, Mike gets at this larger notion of how and why people get stuck. Obviously, the idea of a guy living in his car for years waiting for a busted traffic signal to change is odd, but because Mike treats the situation so humanely and with such a high level of detail, we go along with it. Watching a guy live in his car for years for no good reason and having the main character decide to get on with his life as a result of that is a lot more interesting—and humane—than if he’d just grown up watching the unhappy life of the person who lived in the house across the street.

Nominated Short Story: “Red” - Mike Landweber

Reviewed: by Barry Wade Simms

According to Michael Landweber’s biographical note in Barrelhouse, in which this story appears, he is fond of titles with the word “Associate” in them. Well, this story of his is entitled “Red,” and that is even better, I think. Red was my favorite color when I was a kid. It is a color that has been known to boost eagerness, rouse vigor, and even promote activity and self-assurance. But the symbolism of color can vary, and I’m not sure those exact attributes aforementioned were what Landweber had in mind when he wrote “Red.”

Landweber chooses second person point-of-view, which I think can come across as bossy and gimmicky in some stories, but I believe works well for this story. “Red” opens with the speaker telling you, at the tender age of six, that you’re looking out of your room window of your small apartment onto the drab block below, filled with “rust brown” apartment buildings, just like your own, without verve. You live with Mama and her boyfriend Johnny, both somewhat indifferent and who allow you to have your own time and privacy in your room. Looking through the window you occupy yourself by staring at a broken traffic light that never changes; it remains red all the time and has been this way your entire life.

What follows are three interesting expository paragraphs explaining that before you were born there was a fire station next to your apartment that controlled the traffic light on your street, enabling the firefighters to turn the light green or red to stop traffic when they were called to put out a fire. That was the only purpose for the traffic light’s existence since the light is not located at an intersection and has no other purpose for controlling traffic.

You learn that the firefighters leave, the fire station is torn down, yet someone forgot to turn off the traffic light that forever remains red and the “magic switch” disappeared beneath the rubble of the razed fire station. When the firemen leave and the fire station is gone the people living on the block seem to have the fire sucked from them and in a way become listless, or more appropriately, frozen in their routines and their “rust brown” apartments on their “forgotten block”—a block that has no crime and is kept that way by the people who live on the block.

So, in place of the fire station another dreary apartment is built, yet the traffic light remains, obviously glowing red. But none of the locals heed its redness anymore and even drivers who become lost and pass through the block finally figure out that the light is broken and continue on, that is until one man, driving a “cherry red” sports car drives through.

When it comes to this particular man, the red light serves as a spider web of sorts, and he “believed in the light,” or he believes it would eventually change on its own. You watch him sit there and a connection develops between he and you. You were the first to see him.

One of the locals, Mr. Carter, leaves the sanctuary of his apartment and his routine of watching talk shows all day, and he tries to explain to the man that the red light will not change. The man ignores him and continues watching the red light. Mr. Carter is soon replaced by a group of unruly boys drumming on the man’s sports car, but the man’s attention cannot be broken away from the light.

That night the man remains in his car at the light. At three in the morning you take some food from your refrigerator to the man. You try to explain that the light will not change, but he says that the light is red, and he remains in his spot. The connection between you and the man grows, perhaps more than you are fully aware of at the time. The red light is symbolically holding everyone on the block, hostage. But this man believes that it will change. His showing up is the one event that takes place during your life that shows you how stagnate your community has become.

The next day the man is “claimed” by Annalise, a large, unattractive girl, who has a reputation of being promiscuous. She provides him with food, sex, and sponge baths. Over a course of weeks, then years, Annalise moves inside the car with the man.

The people living on the block become disinterested in the man and Annalise at the stoplight, even you, now a young adult become disinterested in the man and his car.

That is until shortly after turning eighteen your attention once again turns to the sports car at the forever red light and you notice how dilapidated it has become, how it has “faded to rust brown” and how “the chassis kissed the asphalt.” And this moment, twelve years later, again three in the morning, you find your own way, away from the block that has entrapped all the ones who live there, leaving the block and the man ensnared by the red beaming stoplight.

“Red” reads like a parable. It isn’t necessarily a simple story exemplifying a moral or even a warning for those who get too comfortable in their lives. At the expense of sounding sentimental, it is more a story of courage and faith. That’s what red means to me.

Reviewer's Bio:

Barry Wade Simms is a native East Tennesseean living among the hills of The Great Smoky Mountains. His short stories have appeared in Bat City Review, Whistling Shade, Maisonneve, Monday Night, and elsewhere. He is currently working on two short story collections.

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


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