Leni Zumas, Farewell Navigator (Open City Books, 2008)
Reading the opening lines of Leni Zumas’s Farewell Navigator, I was reminded of a cloyingly idyllic passage from a childhood favorite, On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the fourth book in her Little House series. After washing their dishes, Laura—a portrait of the author as a young girl—and her sister Mary are sent by Ma into the plum thicket to shake the trees, heavy with red, yellow, blue, and purple fruits. “Around them the air was sweet and sleepy, and wings hummed…Laura put all the good plums in her pail. But she flicked the hornets off the cracked plums with her fingernail and quickly popped the plum into her mouth. It was sweet and warm and juicy.”
This sensorial scene, with its bare feet and bonnets and frolicsome play at quality control, as well as its sticky fingers and seeping nectar and airborne intoxication, evokes freedoms innocent and ripe, carefree and sensual. It forms an image of the time, space, and body of childhood bordered against the aches, pains, and guilt-ridden complications of aging, of the transition from picking fruits and shooing hornets to making decisions that will affect the shape of the matter we inhabit, in the form of yearning, gain, loss, labor, and sloth, as adult human beings.
The sons and daughters who populate Zumas’s short stories inherit no such prairie legacy. Her title story, narrated by a high-school student with two blind parents, “Black and Blue,” opens under a plum tree owned by a family that could not be more exposed to elements of decay. “We live with the lights off in a rot-walled house. In our yard the dogs wait and a tree drops plums. I stand with a basket... All summer we chew sugar till our teeth sting. In the winter we eat from jars, cold runny fruit, and the radio plays in the dark.” The fruit that this household bears is cold, comfortless, sure to rot the insides of those that partake of it for too long.
Not only are children, young and old, kept from moving beyond the sins, failures, and handicaps of their makers, but the limitations that prevent them from embodying or transcending their childhoods are completely void of care or reason; with regard to the boundaries they set, the parents in these stories (if there are any) act without compass. In “The Everything Hater,” the narrator’s mother nurtures the narrator’s brother’s inability to overcome personal tragedy, which feeds into his inability to shed his “socks embroidered with little monkeys”: “There’s a smear of peanut sauce on his chin. Mom reaches to wipe it with her napkin, and I get tears of disgust at the back of my mouth.”
In another fatherless bubble, “Dragons May Be the Way Forward,” an obese mother and her socially timid daughter exchange trivia—the mother’s derived from television, the daughter’s, from obscure words—to pass the time. In between these episodes, the parent jabs at her adult-child’s perpetual virginity, while the daughter silently incants her mother’s death. “When she dies, that chin won’t jut any longer. Its meat will turn to powder on her collarbone and she’ll have no chin at all.” These narrators are bruised by their parents’ unnatural attitudes toward their upbringing, and they rage accordingly.
Zumas writes with an uncanny aptitude for the intense visceral thoughts, emotions, compulsions, and reactions that accompany dealing in the realm of daily experience. Her narrators and characters tug at their own skins, enter the anatomies of others, and, from the various parts discovered, voice surreal, poetic expressions that contain true sensations. “Do your lungs ever clot with worry on the weekends? Does your brain bleed nails of ideas…?”; “The sky is ruthless, a brilliant blue that will go on being blue even after Murphy’s heart stalls and her lungs cave in and her wrinkled kid’s body drops to the linoleum…”; “I smiled and nudged the secret back into my mouth.”
Farewell Navigator shows what fruits the branches of sick trees bear, some of which drop unripe, some, too late. Yet it is not a collection without hope for those rejected. Zumas casts a light upon her youngest character in the form of a sour grandmotherly figure. “Her cheeks are cherrier, thanks to the protein and vegetables she has been ingesting…at Megrim’s kitchen table.” For the time being, childhood is saved for another stirring idyll.