Book Reviews · 07/07/2014

Train Shots by Vanessa Blakeslee


Burrow Press, 2014

Vanessa Blakeslee’s short story collection Train Shots contains such an array of characters and settings that it seems challenging at first to find any through-line among the eleven pieces. These stories take us to rural Pennsylvania, Costa Rica, Florida, Los Angeles, and New Orleans, among other places, and include train engineers, fast food restaurant employees, doctors, au pairs, and aspiring authors of how-to manuals. Her characters vary in age from troubled teens to middle-aged professionals in crisis. Blakeslee’s range of subject matter is impressive. Eventually, however, commonalities begin to emerge: most significantly, her characters suffer from various forms of grief and loss. Their lives have taken a wrong turn and they find themselves trapped and isolated, even from themselves. One character’s realization could stand as the collection’s thesis statement:

There are three kinds of grief: the grief of the definite, for what once was and is now gone; the grief of the indefinite, where there are no answers and so the worst is suspected; and the grief of the inevitable, for what must be lost and whose future must be abandoned.

This character, from the story “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” is mourning the definite: the stray dogs she rescued but could not save from thieves. There are many characters who mourn the indefinite: one, from “Barbecue Rabbit,” wonders how to save her violent and dangerous son and worries that he may be beyond help; another, from “Uninvited Guests,” wonders how she will raise her daughter on her own after escaping from an abusive husband. And some mourn the inevitable: the train engineer from the title story has hit too many people who have thrown themselves in the path of his train, and he now feels he cannot do his job anymore. He is not sure what else he can do though.

True to the spirit of the book’s title, these characters are in transit, separated from their homes and separated from the things that have grounded them. One character asks, “but where was home? Was it here with my stepson, or back in Costa Rica? Was it in Florida, at my ex-husband’s side? Home was all and none of those places.” These people have also lost a sense of who they are. One forlornly and pathetically asks his young son Sam, “Who am I?” and Sam can only answer, “I don’t know.” The despairing pop star from “Princess of Pop” breaks down when she sees herself on screen, feeling that “the face of the open-mouthed figure in the music video the other day belonged to someone else, a fabrication.” This sense of separation from the self is literalized in the story “The Lung,” where the main character stores his lost, cancer-ridden lung in the garage and brings it out in a desperate attempt to keep his girlfriend from leaving him.

These stories are not entirely without hope, though, and they are not without humor. The characters in “The Lung” end up chucking the decaying body part out in the garbage, a scene that is grotesquely funny, while also offering the couple a new start. The man’s remaining lung has expanded to fill the empty space in his chest, a transformation that shows the resilience human beings can sometimes display: “Mysterious as a snowflake, my solo lung has great arms. It splays out in my chest like a flesh-made Star of David and reaches out of my body, across the universe.” The narrator of the strongest story in the collection, “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” is capable of bitter rage and threats of great violence: “I pictured how easy it would be right here in this clearing in the middle of lawless forgotten Nicaragua to point the gun at any one of these thieves, shoot to kill, and rid the world of their ignorance,” but she recognizes her own complicity: her failure to understand the suffering of others and the complexity that lies behind the lawlessness she witnesses. These moments of hopefulness lighten what might otherwise be a very dark book. Glimmers of hope are not to be found in every story, however; the stories fit no particular pattern and follow no formula.

Blakeslee’s style is for the most part simple and unadorned; the language does not call attention to itself and the storytelling is straightforwardly realistic. Blakeslee is an accomplished writer, but I would not turn to this collection in search of new and beautiful sentences. Rather, her simple style succeeds in placing the focus squarely on the characters and their struggles, so that the reader’s attention is kept on the themes of loss and suffering, on the variety of settings and situations, and on the depth and complexity of the characters’ emotional experiences. In technical terms, the most adventurous story is the first one, “Clock In,” which is told in the second person, in the form of a training session at a fast food restaurant. The narrator speaks to the “you” of the story, clarifying procedures and policies and veering off into descriptions of the other employees’ lives. But even here, the narrative style is straightforward.

Some of the weaker stories are underdeveloped and lacking in urgency; the characters in “Ask Jesus,” for example, never quite come to life, and the ambiguous ending feels unsatisfying rather than suggestive. The tensions of the relationship in “The Sponge Diver” feel more sketched-in than fully developed. While not uniformly successful, most of the stories in Train Shots offer vivid characters in riveting situations that linger in the mind. At her strongest, Blakeslee has important things to say about human resilience, or the lack of it, and about the mysteries of survival in the face of suffering.

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Vanessa Blakeslee was raised in northeastern Pennsylvania and earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Globe and Mail, PANK, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, and the Ragdale Foundation.

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Rebecca Hussey is a Professor of English at Norwalk Community College. She blogs about books at Of Books and Bikes.