This Is Not a Love Song by Brendan Mathews
Friday, May 31, 2019 at 6:29AM
TChris in Brendan Mathews, General Fiction, short stories

Published by Little, Brown and Company on February 5, 2019

The stories in the collection differ in style, but they all have substance. In “Heroes of the Revolution,” a writer from Sarajevo tours Chicago with a group of Eastern European journalists. When their bubbly tour guide wants the writer to open up about her life, she is unprepared for the story she hears, yet it feels familiar to one of the journalists. The experiences that two characters associate with apple orchards illustrate the vast differences in people’s lives, differences that prevent them from bonding despite their commonalities.

“This Is Not a Love Song” is a lengthy character sketch of a singer named Kat who became a bit famous before she died, as sketched by her photographer, a former roommate and friend who seems to have been obsessed with her. “My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer” is told from the perspective of a jealous circus clown who falls in love with a trapeze artist. The setting suggests a less serious story than the others, but the themes (working without a net as a metaphor for life) are just as somber as those advanced in the other entries.

“Salvage” describes a man who earns cash to tear apart buildings in the decaying Midwest to salvage treasure for his boss. Faced with a father who wants him to “man up,” a boss who abuses him, and the unattainability of his dreams, the man hits bottom before realizing that the treasure he needs to salvage is his life.

Many of the stories are about families and relationships. “How Long Does the First Part Last?” recounts a guy’s thoughts during a lengthy drive, memories of the past and glimpses of the future, all beginning when he hears “Can we not talk?” as the prelude to a long, silent trip. Another story set in a car, “The Drive,” is about the generation gap between dads and the girls they drive home.

Dan is sure the house has toxic mold, Jenna is sure it doesn’t. It is the marriage in “Airborne” that has become toxic. Told largely from Jenna’s perspective, the story is one of uncertainty and growing fears about choices she has made, all leading to an abrupt and entirely unexpected ending.

“Henry and His Brother” is told in alternating sections, one narrated by Harry and the other by his brother. The story is interesting for the differing perspectives of two brothers who love each other but need to find a way to accept each other. If they both agree on one thing, it is probably this: “It’s the years invested in loving another person, or trying to love them as best you can, that can turn your heart to stone and drag you down, deeper than you ever thought you could go.” As for the brothers, maybe “keeping each other close is the only way to keep pressure on the wound.”

“Dunn & Sons” closely examines three brothers and their father. The narrative voice belongs to the son of one of the brothers who is home from the Army but, feeling now like an outsider, isn’t likely to join the family business. The males in the family give ownership rights to a family story based on who tells it best, but they have never learned to talk to each other. The tension that builds during a family golf outing is palpable. The spotlight illuminating the difference between family stories and family communication makes “Dunn & Sons” my second favorite story in the volume.

Dugan is from Chicago but moved to Durham to further a romance that burned out.  While taking pictures for a photography class, Dugan accidentally burns down a black church. When another church burns, Dugan wonders whether he inadvertently inspired an arsonist, perhaps someone he knows. “Look at Everything,” my favorite story in the collection, explores Dugan’s sense of guilt as he asks himself why he took picture after picture as the church burned.

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