When I think of my students thinking of me, one word I’m sure they’re not thinking is “amazed.” I’m not the kind of breath-taking professor who makes them stare up at me, unblinking, their mouths agape, the pens and pencils down on the desk, glued to my every word like gospel. I’ve never moved anyone to tears, nor have I elicited applause at the end of a lecture. I’ve never been asked for my autograph after an overhead discussion, and so far, no one’s named a child after me (though I’d give an automatic A for that, adorable little Czyzniejewski Jones).
One part of my professional life that they do seem impressed by is how many people I know. They bring up a writer, we read someone in an anthology, or another professor teaches someone in a class, and a lot of the time, I “know” that person, can spout an anecdote or factoid about them, had drink with them once in some city, maybe even have their number in my phone. Of course, knowing someone has taken on so many meanings, especially since the dawn of social media. I have 4,992 FB friends, which covers a lot of bases, but it’s not like I exchange Christmas cards with all of them, or would even know it if we were trapped in the same elevator. Before e-friending, I worked on literary journals for twenty years, went to AWP all the time, and in general, have attempted to be nice to be nice. Along the way, a few people learned my name and I learned theirs.
Early on in this blog, I described how I remember where each and every book I own came from, where and when I got it, if the author was there to sign it, if I got it at a used bookstore, for a class, etc. I have similar memory for how I know people. Often, it’s just “Oh, I know her from FB,” but for the writers I’ve published in Mid-American Review, in Moon City Review, that’s the tie that will always bind us. “We ran some of his epistolary poems back in 2002,” that sort of thing. It’s the ultimate gift, publication, saying that you endorse someone’s art; it works the other way, too, the artist entrusting you with their creation, such a great honor.
Gary Fincke holds a very distinct memory for me as an editor: His story “The Armstrong View” was the first story I found and contracted as Fiction Editor of MAR, back in early 1997. I had just been promoted to the position, and sitting in the office, next to Editor-in-Chief George Looney, I read through the pile of submissions, finding Fincke’s story pretty quickly. I read it all the way through right away, knowing I had a winner, and immediately passed it to George, who looked skeptical. “Already? You just started,” he said. But he read it right there, too, and agreed we needed to publish it. I emailed Gary to let him know. Editing is easy!
Almost twenty years later, here I am, reading more Gary Fincke fiction. I’m not publishing him this time, but instead blogging about his story, “A Room of Rain,” the title piece from his twenty-seventh (not a typo) and most recent book, A Room of Rain. I’ve kept tabs on Fincke’s work these past two decades, seen him win prestigious awards, publish in notable journals, and recently, I had the honor of interviewing him for SmokeLong Quarterly. Fincke has been around, is established, and it’s always a pleasure to read his work.
“A Room of Rain” is told from a twelve-year-old kid’s point of view, in past tense, so we’re supposed to read the story like it’s an older version of the kid, looking back, telling a story with more wisdom and experience than he had when the events were taking place. I really like the voice in this story, the confidence, because so much happens, so many horrible things, and it would indeed take years of thought, of healing, to gain the perspective this story has. The kid was clueless when so many of the events were happening, yet now, the story’s told as if it all made perfect sense, that he understood all along. There’s a real mastery that goes into past tense, a technique that’s taken for granted, but Fincke nails it perfectly here.
The story itself centers around Brad, a kid who seems to be part of a normal family, a mom and a dad, a house, a TV, jobs, bills, the whole nine yards. While Brad is watching a movie on TV (noting it’s with the dad from Father Knows Best, which might give us a clue as to how long ago all this happened), his mother calls him outside to look at the rain. Brad discovers not a normal rain storm, but a storm that spans only about seven feet across. In other words, it’s raining, but only in this very specific place in this family’s back yard. It’s an image that we see in cartoons a lot, a tiny rain cloud following some sad sack around—Charlie Brown comes to mind—but this is otherwise a realistic story. Hot damn, Gary Fincke’s writing magical realism!
When the parents’ marriage unravels soon after, I was reminded of Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Ceiling”—a story I teach every semester because Brockmeier is a Missouri State alum—which uses magical realism similarly, metaphorical for a relationship gone south. Fincke’s story is immediately much more, however, as he expands upon this premise, upon my presumption, with new facts about Brad and his parents, one in particular that forms the family as we come to know it. More characters, more themes, and that aforementioned older-Brad perspective makes this rainstorm hard to pinpoint, to explain. What’s it mean? It can mean a lot of things, or none of them. This is a wonderful, complex, emotional story by Gary Fincke.
Contrary to what I fear I project to my classes, I don’t know every writer (nor do I think the connections I do have make me some kinda big shot). This blog is a testament to that, as I’ve already run across so many new-to-me writers, whom, ironically, I’ve gotten to know. Gary Fincke is a standard, though, one of our great literary citizens. He’s a technician, a historian, a poet, a teacher, and a storyteller, and I’m proud I can say I came across him in the beginning.