Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fourteen Hills/John Somerville/Bonnie ZoBell/ Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Amy Glasenapp

Fourteen Hills is a journal with a perpetually evolving aesthetic. Work published in its pages is not too pretty and never convenient; in fact it is jarring, evocative, and unpredictable, like the world in which we live.

"Headland" is the story of a man subdued, drawn away all too easily from his life by the spellbinding rhythm of the sea. He is an outsider watching his family slowly disappear. He himself is a shadowy figure passing in and out of rooms, his desperate family representing nothing more than a vague obligation. Their pull will never be as strong as the current’s. Reminiscent of The Stranger with its themes of isolation and apathy, "Headland" zooms in on a man meeting his downfall as he wanders a kinetic ocean landscape.

Nominated Short Story: "Headland" - John Somerville

Reviewed: by Bonnie ZoBell

The lush prose in John Somerville's "Headland" is enough to make a language lover's heart sing. The plot is a good one, complex and engaging, but what makes this story are the words that deliver the beauty of human existence, as well as the pain.

The narrator's wife is leaving him, we learn in the first sentence. But that's only an outward manifestation of something far more serious going on deep within Somerville's main character. He's worn out. If it weren't for the descriptions and personifications of setting, we might never know what is going on inside this man. He's not very good at saying. There are a few lighter moments: "When I walked down into the waves the water crowded around my feet like excited animals, burrowing my toes into the sand then running away." But not many. "At intervals along the beach beds of rocks clung to the shore desperately, like creatures that had dragged themselves from the ocean and were clinging there, exhausted and beaten."

This trip starts as a vacation with the man and his wife and two children, but the narrator admits to himself early on he can't go back. "On long walks I tried to reach an end, somewhere where I had to stop, walking on into the mist or the blinding sunshine. But around each corner or headland the ocean seemed to lead me on with a promise, only presenting me with more emptiness and the long walk back."

The wife is patient at first, flicking a fly off herself here and there, first one annoyance and then another. She keeps asking, "When, then?" It is she who seems always to be in the light—under bulbs in the house, sitting in the sun—while her husband tends to gravitate towards the black sea. Hordes of flies and gnats soon press into the screens to get at the light, what's left of the wife's hopes and dreams, until she is finally so exhausted about what is going on with her husband that she's unable to fight them anymore.

The wife wants more from him, a lot more. She has trouble accepting that it's not a question of when he will go back to the town with her, but that he's already gone. She wants her husband to participate more physically in family life. Why doesn't he build sand castles with their sons? He tries but can't follow through when they build a long trench and their castles begin to sink like lost worlds. The wife wants her husband to bring physical tokens back from his long walks alone. He brings back a puffer fish, which his sons promptly impale on a stick.

Finally the wife can't stand it anymore and starts "killing the insects . . . swinging and swatting . . . as if she’d gone mad," swatting at her own hopes and dreams until finally he gives her some unsatisfying particulars of their life he's tired of. She takes the sons and leaves him in the deserted encampment.

The husband turns even more inward. A horrible incident involving a young woman happens one night on the beach that forces the man to have to try to physically get out of himself and help. We watch the aftermath. We are strangely more concerned about what will happen to him after the incident than we are the young woman.

Finally he does make a decision of sorts, as the story works to a startling ending.

Thank goodness there are still writers in the world like John Somerville for whom the act of writing isn't about strip-mining language of its words, for whom a well-placed adjective or adverb is still a thing of beauty that can live alongside the stark reality of minimalism. Thank goodness there are still stories like this where a man can bare his soul, exploring with language, and go all the way to the end of where it takes him.

Reviewer's Bio:

Bonnie ZoBell has received an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, and the Capricorn Novel Award. Recently included on Wigleaf's 2009 Top 50 list for very short fiction, she has work included or forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, Storyglossia, American Fiction, The Greensboro Review, dcomP, Rumble, and LITSNACK. She received an MFA from Columbia, teaches at San Diego Mesa College, and can be reached at

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