“Free Ploughshares” Review: Fall 2004

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Issue: Fall 2004

This is a review of a back issue of Ploughshares. The author won our “Free Ploughshares” contest that we hosted earlier this year and agreed to review his/her free issue. This post was written by Julia Brown. Enjoy!

In the Fall 2004 fiction issue of Ploughshares, guest editor Amy Bloom assembled a collection of stories that resonate far beyond the page. The settings vary wildly, from a moth-haunted summerhouse in upstate New York to a circus in Alexandria, Egypt. However, the stories are united by their complex emotional landscapes and threaded through with the poignant urgency, the tenderness and difficulty, of life.

Displacement of self is a recurring theme. In Rebecca Brown’s “The Last Time I Saw You,” a woman’s yearning, idyllic reflection on a last meeting with a lover twists and gives way to a darker story of addiction and human frailty. The recovering alcoholic in Holiday Reinhorn’s “Get Away from Me, David” lives minute-by-minute with a turbulent past and potential relapse. The responsible, fully engaged bank employee he presents to the outside world feels, to him, like a different person altogether: “The other guy took over from there on out. I’ve introduced you to him before, right? The one who lives one day at a time and seems to know what to do?” In Ron Carlson’s “The Gold Lunch,” a man accepts a hard-won medal for an Olympic-sized event—a meal in a restaurant with his ex-wife.

The characters in these stories expose the most vulnerable, unexpected parts of themselves, even as they ponder the identities of others. An encounter with an old acquaintance at a dinner party causes the protagonist of Thomas Beller’s “Sally the Slut” to reconsider his college self, ten years later. Miles Harvey’s “The Drought” is equal parts fable, myth, and ghost story, in which a small town TV station manager recounts the disappearance of the station’s weatherman. The two-year drought gripping the town becomes a symbol of desire, frustrated and fulfilled.

Debra Spark’s “Lady of the Wild Beasts” centers on a recently deceased schizophrenic graphic artist, the twin sister left to cope with her death, and the copyeditor tasked with reducing the woman’s troubled life story to comfortable sound bites for his publisher. They struggle with aim and aimlessness while seeking meaning in the small actions of their lives. In the issue’s single piece of non-fiction “Intimacy and the Feast,” Leslie Daniels constructs towering, neon-bright character studies of authors such as Walter Mosely and William Trevor using “speculation, gossip, and a pack of lies.” The seductive, sharply detailed portraits are, perhaps, more reflective of Daniels’ own obsessions than the authors’ actual lives.

The stories in this volume are not engines for simplified notions of plot or character, but rather products of a richer, more intangible alchemy. “In the best stories,” Amy Bloom declares, “truth, love, language, and story wrestle for their sense of self and then pull together, like bits of mud and fish, pulling themselves up and out, onto land, and into human story form.”

Julia Brown is a singer-songwriter living in Brooklyn, New York.