Joe Ashby Porter


Touch Wood: Short Stories
By Joe Ashby Porter.
Turtle Point Press, 2002.
200 pages. $15.95, paper.

Touch Wood: Short StoriesOne thing that can be said for the stories in Joe Ashby Porter's new collection, Touch Wood: They jump around. From an author (and Duke English professor) whose first two collections were named for a place (Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Kentucky Stories and Lithuania), those in Touch Wood refuse to be pinned down by locale, whether Key West, Kansas City, or Paris. The shortest story in the collection, "In The Mind," occurs within a narrative dreamscape. The longest, "Scrupulous Amédée" (at fifty pages, vying for novella status), unfolds along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

The locales are not the only aspect of Porter's stories that jump around. The language itself leaps and prances about to the point that the reader must cling tightly to the narrative. Nearly every character offered is unapologetically verbose.

The first paragraph of the story "Icehouse Burgess," about a wandering man who delights in shedding identities as he journeys, reads: "I grew up in a Kansas City icehouse, loving dogs with their furry muzzles when they'd sniff past the ropes and peeling posters of a morning for a wad of sausage casing, or even a handshake in the dank gloom where the duffers and me slung steaming blocks onto the loading platform straw." As the convoluted sentence makes navigation a challenge for the reader, so the protagonist of "Icehouse Burgess" shuns society in search of a personal peace (not unlike Beckett's Molloy). Along with his narrator, Porter is bent on defying any attempts to pigeonhole him or expectations that his style be set in stone.

In the collection's first story, "A Man Wanted To Buy A Cat," take the first sentence: "The man wanted to buy the cat but couldn't because his wife was allergic to it." The protagonist, like a child, wants but he can't. The owner of "a wood-working and ski repair shop," he harbors a childish obsession with obtaining a cat glimpsed in the window of a store in town. His desire is made illicit both by his wife's allergy and the cat's presumed unavailability--sitting in the windowsill, it must be the pride of the storeowner. The man imagines building a separate house exclusively for the cat in which he would shower and change clothes in each go-between from cat to wife, as if the pet were his extramarital lover.

His wife, a tolerant woman, indulges her husband's fantasy. Explaining to her children the love that binds her and her husband together, she says, "It won't necessarily be spouse number one, or any spouse for that matter, and given your age (eight) I wouldn't want to lay money on what gender or race it might be, for instance, but trust me, you'll know how lucky you're fortunate enough to be if it does eventually happen to you." Reassuring advice. The author never misses a chance to let us know we live in a wonderfully diverse and always diversifying nation (the flip side of the refusal to be pigeonholed is the right to be awash in the plethora of ways to be).

At last, the man confronts the cat's owner, a lonely spinster. She details for him the sad demise of her last pet, a turtle, whose decaying shell she let sit in her house for a year. Like the rest of the story, their dialogue reads as zany and artificial. "I suppose you dated other carrottops first," the cat owner says, referring to the man's red-headed wife. "I generally think of carrottops as green," responds the husband.

The discussion takes up the mantle of the love/desire dialectic. Love, presumes the cat owner, takes a back seat to desire. Of her relationship with the pet turtle, the spinster concludes, "It had to croak for me to miss its company." The man takes pity on her and returns to his wife, leaving the old woman to the cat and her belittled sense of love. Because she loves her husband, the man's wife buys him a rabbit, which he learns to love as his Love's gift; everyone is happy at story's end. "True love," man-to-man the father tells his son, "is money in a bank."

The channeling of excess desire or energy figures prominently in Porter's collection. "Scrupulous Amédée" examines a husband's inability to be monogamous. "In The Mind," a somewhat pat parable for artistic consciousness, depicts the surrealistic voyage of a young man apart, who finds it his "duty to inspect a mind," a tunnel system beneath the ground in which clusters of deformed men attempt to entertain one another.

The central story, "Touch Wood," consists of three fragments, two vignettes sandwiching a meta-fictional warning to those who would dismiss fiction as meaningless to the arc of their lives. The most straightforward of Porter's collection in style, if not in thrust, the tale is cinched together with skill and delicacy and without the cloying tendencies of other stories in the collection.

Porter's characters are unable to love in a conventional manner. Rather than solving their restlessness, their anxiety, their desire to seek affirmation outside themselves, Porter's style shares their manic bent toward inventiveness and thereby seeks to validate it. In "A Pear-shaped Woman and a Fuddy-duddy," the protagonists described in the title listen to an instructor explicate the essence of character investigation for her seminar on the subject, which, not coincidentally, is Porter's primary concern as well: "Character partakes of the ineffable, so that we can only compare notes within reason and, though your victory may not appear, still you may always outstrip anyone, including of course yourself."


Price, who has reviewed books for The Addison Independent in Middlebury, Vermont, lives in Los Angeles.


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