Fires of Our Choosing
The 12 stories that make up Eugene Cross’s skillful debut collection, Fires of Our Choosing, concern, as the title suggests, choice and the heat of consequence. Set mostly in Erie, PA, they are peopled by characters who can’t wait to leave home, or who have left and returned, or who have never left at all. Some drink; some have quit drinking. Some blame others for their misfortune; most, only themselves.
In the title story, the narrator, Eric, a college drop-out, still keeps company with his best friend from high school, the pitiable, hapless Lenny. Both have lost parents, both live alone, and neither is leading a particularly productive life. What distinguishes the narrator from Lenny, however, is arguably the story’s reason for being. Whereas Lenny’s family saw their son as a “superb misfortune,” Eric’s late father had a boundless faith in Eric. “The worse I did, the more I disappointed him, the stronger (his faith) seemed to grow, as though he knew at any moment I would … prove to the world that I was not just another fuck-up.” Eric’s struggles to reckon with this legacy, and his misguided sympathy for Lenny, find him involved in a singularly injudicious, dreadful act.
Cross’s narrators tend to be reflective, rueful, and wise, and there is an element of confession in some stories—the need to make what is thus-far known by the narrator known to the reader. In “The Brother,” Sam hires his girlfriend’s younger brother, Luke, who, unless given some wholesome occupation, is bound to wind up back in jail. While Sam holds no love for the young man, his feelings are complicated by empathy: “We had both grown up in the same place, had both used Erie’s meager size and limited diversions as an excuse to drink our parents’ liquor … raid their medicine cabinets.” But Sam has since evolved—he runs his own one-man house-painting company, no longer drinks, and has a good relationship with his girlfriend. Nonetheless, it is Sam who is dogged by demons, and he who is reminded by story’s end that his own past crimes can never be absolved.
This theme of reckoning is ever present in Fires, and in “Rosaleen, If You Know What I Mean,” a reckoning is explicitly what Marty and the other kids in his anger management class are told they must come to. Marty is there because, in an apparent act of sublimation, he has beaten up Joshua, “the smallest boy in his 6th grade class.” Marty’s older brother has left home and his father is dead, leaving Marty alone with his mother, a woman too grief-stricken to provide comfort. In a scene in which Marty listens in on the phone conversation between his mother and Joshua’s mother, Cross nicely shows Marty’s awakening of just how isolated his fractured family has become: “Marty felt a pit open in his stomach. He had not heard his mother called by her name in a long time.”
The wise voice of Cross’s first-person narrators can, on occasion, come off as a bit too earnest. As when, in the brief “Hunters” a narrator recounts a night when he, then aged 28, picked up an older woman at a bar. He drives the woman home and encounters the young child she’d left alone.
I try to think of how that girl might have seen me … a strange man in her home, and it reminds me of the stains I’ve left on this life of mine. It’s hard to think of that man, the one who stayed the night with that woman and left the next morning without a word.
The tone, here, is laced with a kind of pity that deprives the past of air. Similarly, metaphors sometimes register as too meaning-imbued, as when, in “430,” a couple in a failing marriage runs over a dog who bleeds “from some injury deep within that Roddy knew could not be mended.”
In “Come August” and “Harvesters” the deliberateness of Cross’s narrative technique is quite effective. In the former, a woman, hung-over and preoccupied with an undeserving young man, recounts the events of a day long past when her life took a tragic turn. The incessant imperatives of the second-person point-of-view are fitting for the voice of this wiser, infinitely sadder woman compelled to tell the story of the “you” she once was. “Harvesters” traces the life of a migrant worker, Ty, in a third person narration, distant and detached:
The Harvest began in Texas and it was there where he joined the others, running the combines day and night … Across into Colorado and back through Nebraska following the grain, they slept and ate in trailers too small for comfort … they spoke of little besides the Harvest, and knew each other by their jobs.
The brutally hard work is carried out without question, and likewise unexamined is the relationship that Ty has maintained for years with a woman in South Dakota.
Eugene Cross has created stories in which plot rightly serves as the function of character, and characters’ motivations are carefully tended. The stories make sense; they convince. And in each, there are scenes that will stay with readers for a long time.