Is That You, John Wayne? by Scott Garson
Queen's Ferry Press, 2013
One of the greatest pleasures in the life of a reader is discovering a new artist, one who views life in ways both unique and recognizable. The twenty-three pieces that make up Scott Garson’s new collection are, as individual stories, lovely, but as a whole, they achieve a type of harmony, a song full of wonder and discovery, heartbreak and insight.
Garson’s landscape is modern America, complete with its sense of drift and longing, a world populated by people we know, or at least we think we know. We brush by Garson’s characters every day. They are ordinary folks, young people drifting through jobs and relationships; older people who look back, just now comprehending the melancholy that so often accompanies wisdom. We meet people dealing with loss and disillusionment, people with good hearts but no concrete plans of action. Beneath these familiar veneers await individual stories, and it’s here one finds the strength of Garson’s work—its underlying sense of decency and humanity, its gift for capturing distilled moments ripe with quiet grace. Lovers, family members, strangers—we see them all, and Garson’s gift is the rendering of each with images that stay in the mind long after the book has been read. Proof? How about his line from “Greatman and the Non-Human Girl,” a line so simple yet which pierces the heart: “The man’s life: a footprint in water.” Is That You, John Wayne? consists of many such beautiful moments, haunting ideas made all the more powerful by the beautiful frames Garson creates with his words.
Another strength of the collection is contained within the variety of the stories’ shapes. There are long stories and shorter stories. There are flash pieces no more than a paragraph, lovely snippets of life that flare then fade, leaving afterimages that linger long after the final sentence. “The Goth of SecurityOne Field” consists of letters penned by a retired baseball player. “In Lieu of My Final Paper” is written in the form of an apologetic final-exam essay. Pieces like “About Me and My Cousin” and “Acquired from Ex-Girlfriends” consist of individual scenes that coalesce like a collage’s disparate colors, fragments that join together to make a whole. This diversity of territories and terrains brings a vitality to the collection, a gift wrapped in the freshness of vision and the assurance of craft.
Garson’s clean, straight-on writing style serves him well, especially when he uses it as a tool to investigate the mysteries of this life. Consider this introduction of a character from the story “Acquired from Ex-Girlfriends”:
A 1953 Vassar College yearbook, heavy as stone. Among the sophomores, on page 108, N’s grandmother appears. She’s a beauty, as N used to like to point out: the long neck, not sloping from the vertical; the small lips—subtle conductors, they seem, of all sorts of unconfessed life. Sometimes I turn to that page and feel dwarfed by history. How many years of privilege and breeding were amassed in the making of this girl? How many more would be put into the making of N, a beautiful girl in her own right, though afflicted with stances and moods?
The writer in me envies the economic power of the passage, its encompassing of generations, its ending phrase which deposits this swirl of years with a glimpse beneath the beautiful girl’s skin. Here’s another gem, a description of a first kiss:
The kiss wasn’t heavy or too high-stakes. It had come, I’d said, in a natural way, just part of the conversation: a kiss that was really a thought of itself, if thought were a factor at all.” Who hasn’t experienced such a kiss, one that led to nothing yet which haunts us long after so much has faded?
Is That You, John Wayne? turns a gentle alchemy, one which takes the ordinary yet asks us to step aside and consider what we thought we knew in a different light. Garson’s prose is sharp and crisp, his handling of such minor miracles as a first kiss or a lazy lovers’ afternoon presented in fresh hues. We, his readers, are led into moments of discovery, moments ripe with humanity and compassion, and we emerge the richer for it.