A Simplified Map of the Real World by Stevan Allred
Forest Avenue Press, 2013
Stevan Allred’s stunner of a debut novel is a complex portrait of small-town life. Narrators vary in these fifteen interconnected stories, and this is part of the beauty of this book. The tone is set by the composite voices, which, despite variations in social class, remains consistent.
For instance, we encounter Volpe, the man with arguably the biggest TV in the county, a woman who steals from Goodwill, a pastor, and Mr. Wu, a tailor. Most of the characters are earnest and practical, and they generally like a drink. They are loggers, errant sons, farmers, and a stripper. Women leave their husbands for artificial inseminators and protest abortion clinics alongside attractive pastors. One man is one of the wealthiest in town, yet can’t catch a break with his sons.
We hear a fair amount of aphorisms from these narrators, like, “Some things are worth a good punch in the nose,” and, “If taking a person for granted was reason enough to get a divorce, there wouldn’t be a married couple left in the whole damn county.” The best perhaps is, “If a man couldn’t raise his middle finger and shake it in the face of gravity every once in a while then there wasn’t much point to being alive.” As the characters assert their opinions, we begin to develop a nuanced idea of the ways in which they see the world.
The dialect is simple yet poked-through with phrases like “he didn’t give a rip” and “they each of them” and “crackerjack wild men,” just enough to give you a feel of the rhythms and language of Renata, Allred’s fictional town. There are logger phrases like “donkey engine” and “butt rott,” cattle phrases like “artificial inseminators” and “gomer bulls.” The titles are indicative of how much fun Allred had with this book and the voices populating it: “His Ticky Little Mind” and “The Idjit’s Guide to Intuitive Mastery of Newtonian Physics” and “On Formal Occasions, Hummingbirds.”
Of small towns, Allred says, “What strikes me as similar about all the small towns I’ve known is how they try to hold the outside world at bay. Portland, Oregon, is only thirty miles away from Estacada, and yet there are plenty of Estacadans who haven’t been to the city in years.” Coming from a town of 1200 and growing, I’m familiar with these small-town dynamics. If you know one guy, you probably know his family. You know who is having trouble, who is splitting up or sick, and this all becomes a kind of communal knowledge. If you have a public meltdown, the man you buy groceries from will know. A woman recognizes someone protesting abortions and remembers admitting she had an abortion to this person years ago. Allred does an excellent job of fleshing out this imagined rural town, and of drawing the reader into these peoples’ lives as if she were the one spying. There are people I recognize, ranchers and folks who can talk for an hour about the weather and all night about cows. Many of Allred’s characters are unhappy, and it’s not their fault. It’s inevitable, like the weather. They’re still trying. There is a common thread that runs between people who live in the same place.
In Renata this can spark odd connections. A cop named Larrabee ends up sympathizing with a crew of troublemakers in one story. He knows these guys as only a small-town cop can, and before the climax, he reflects back on the night he “chased Todd Ahlquist through town,” which had been “as much fun as anything he’d done as a deputy sheriff.” Larrabee watches these boys jump a car into a lake without trying to stop them. After, enlivened by the sight of the boy flying through the air, Larrabee laughs and laughs, thinking “he didn’t give a rip about what the law said just happened here.”
Another odd connection happens in “Trish the Freaking Dish,” one of my favorite stories in this collection. In it, the married Patricia Evans receives word as if from God on what to put on her anti-abortion sign, one this fifty-six-year-old holds up largely in service to the attraction she feels for the new minister. Patricia likes the pastor in part because he washes her clean from sins, like “what she and that boy did in the closet of the choir room without even taking their robes off.” The pastor calls her Patty and tells her to hate the sin but not the sinner. The vague hope of something happening with this pastor inspires her to invent increasingly clever picketing signs.
These kinds of connections happen often in Allred’s stories. Sad or run-down characters whom life keeps beating on occasionally break through into a kind of peace. One man whose wife may or may not have slept with his neighbor and friend, Volpe, has a nice moment of eating ice cream in Volpe’s house, watching the biggest TV in the county and drinking Volpe’s booze. “Man that ice cream tasted sweet,” he thinks, and then he readies himself for a punch he knows is coming to him when he sees Volpe coming home.
A Simplified Map of the Real World is beautiful book to settle into, and with each character in Renata, you feel yourself savoring a fuller picture of the town. What I’m left with is a moment from the first story in which a man cannot stop thinking about how his neighbor cut down an oak tree.
You cut down something that’s stood the test of time as long as that tree has and you’re missing with something that you haven’t got any right to mess with. There wasn’t but one thing to do to make the world whole again.
The characters populating these stories have been enduring time and weather and hardship for a long time. People and forces they can’t control cut them down. Wives leave them. Friends betray them. Fathers refuse to understand them. But these people have a refreshing, ecological knowledge that there is always something to be done to make your own world complete again, at least for a minute. Even if it is eating a big bowl of your neighbor’s Rocky Road and finding a good but dumb-as-hell movie on the man’s TV to take your mind off the crap hand you’ve been dealt.