(Burrow Press, 2016)
Those who don’t follow publishing trends likely aren’t aware that linked story collections, like man-buns, are out; in their place we have the “novel-in-stories.” While some authors might see the change as nothing more than publishing jargon, Philip F. Deaver has risen to the challenge of a short-story collection with novel-like plotting.
Forty Martyrs is divided into two sections. The first, “The Fire,” demonstrates what the novel-in-stories can do when handled with skill, building a structure strong enough to support rising action across four “chapters” that nevertheless remain discrete, each related to the others by cast and setting but crafted so successfully to stand alone that they have all appeared independently without requiring any major structural changes.
“The Fire” introduces us to therapist Lowell, his wife Veronica, and his friends Wally and Carol Brown, as well as to the book’s setting: the college town of Tuscola, Illinois, home to the Catholic parish of Forty Martyrs. The four stories of “The Fire” (“Lowell and the Rolling Thunder,” “Coal Grove,” “Projects,” and “The Underlife”) bring to life a complex web of relationships—professional, personal, sexual—that will make possible the novel-like climax with which the section ends.
Lowell is a professor who sees only a handful of patients. These officially include Carol, but by extension (they are both friends and colleagues) informally include Wally, whose behavior is increasingly—even dangerously—erratic, as we learn in “Lowell and the Rolling Thunder.” Carol is having an affair with Nick, former Tuscola resident and compulsive liar. In “Coal Grove,” Nick leaves his recovering drug-addict son in charge of the house to go see “some Louisville business pals”, which in fact means he will spend the day at a Holiday Inn having sex with Carol. One thing that he doesn’t lie about is his urgent desire that Carol destroy their incriminating correspondence. She admits that she hasn’t and won’t; instead of insisting, he reluctantly agrees to pose for their picture, which she can add “to the cache of letters and pending disaster.”
Wally, home alone, suffers from a need to feel that he is getting something done, although it doesn’t seem to matter exactly what. After failing to mow the lawn, he considers a repair project. A need for appropriate materials leads him to search the house. His thoughts roam strangely, and he imagines himself “suspended in a net [. . .] a prisoner without noticing it [. . .] God’s net.” Later he awakes from a daze to find he is sitting in the dark with an axe, unsure where it came from. As a short story, Wally’s chapter (“Projects”) is troubling and grim; as part of a longer work it is even more troubling, and thrilling.
While Carol’s “cache of letters” is never mentioned—this allows “Projects” its independence—the reader of the novel can’t help but know it’s there. It’s a moment where the two forms overlap masterfully (and invisibly to those not looking for the joints). Even when Wally’s madness finally comes to a head in “The Underlife,” Deaver manages to maintain each story’s autonomy. To achieve this, he treats the climactic action with almost Jamesian discretion, hiding the moment off stage and feeding the reader details through a mixture of dialogue and narrative so muted it verges on hearsay. This is managed in part by turning the focus across the street to neighbor Rachel, and subjugating Wally’s story to hers.
Perhaps in a different publishing climate, “The Fire” might have been released in its proper form: as a truly outstanding novella. The second section of Forty Martyrs, “Scars”—which includes a story of the same name—doesn’t have the qualities that make the first so successful. Because the climax has passed, “Scars” feels increasingly inconsequential; as the title suggests, it’s about aftermaths.
In a story called “Forty Martyrs,” Carol visits the parish priest, Father Kelleher, who has found his church robbed, and pulled out an old pistol in case the thieves return. Although thematically linked to Wally’s actions, Kelleher’s instance that “There’s pride in this, the male way, standing up for himself” offers little real insight into the events of “The Fire”. Carol’s sudden realization that Wally has learned about Nick is flat: after all, the reader already knows—and knows, too, what Carol suffered as consequence. It seems clear that the stakes will not rise that high again.
Lowell, guilty at having failed his friends and patients, falls off the wagon in “Bottom,” but his almost miraculous recovery at a treatment facility feels easy. The following stories, “Scars,” and “Truth,” in which Veronica learns Lowell and Carol may have had an affair, and in turn admits her own infidelities, are similarly slack. The suspicion that our attachments to the characters are being up-cycled is confirmed when Carol calls Veronica to tell her she’s had a letter from Wally, who’s ill. Mutatis mutandis, this is where we came in.
Or not quite: the novel in fact begins with a prologue, “Vasco and the Virgin,” in which Vasco Whirly, fired from his job and abandoned by his family, has a visitation from Mary. There is a magical aspect to the story not present elsewhere in the book. Vasco re-appears later as a kind of stock figure, a heroic passer-by with little depth. Readers might wonder if we are meant to relate his vision to Wally’s experience of “God’s net”, and if so, how: Are they point-counterpoint? Does one somehow acquit the other? The best readers will enjoy asking such questions, but they will also note that “Vasco and the Virgin” serves once again to highlight, by contrast, the powerful unity of “The Fire.”