Happy President’s Day! Lots of holidays coming at Story366, upping the pick-a-story-for-the-blog game just a little. Yesterday was fairly easy—love stories can be found in most books—but today was a bit harder. The unread books that sit next to me at Story366 Work Station number around fifty right now, and thumbing through tables of contents, it took me to around book forty-five on the stacks until I found a story with a president’s name in the title. I’m not sure why I’d thought it would be easier, that writers just wrote about presidents all the time, sticking their names in the titles, but I did. I found a lot of celebrity names—forthcoming Story366 subjects B.J. Novak and Dave Housely were farms of pop culture refs. I found only one presidential reference: Ronald Reagan in “Reagan’s Army in Retreat” by Jerry Gabriel, from his collection Drowned Boy, out from Sarabande. I was a kid when Reagan was president and don’t have particularly fond memories of that reign (my whole family, then and now, staunch Democrats), but I set out to find a story even remotely about presidents, and once I saw the title in Gabriel’s book, it was time to read.
As it turns out, “Reagan’s Army in Retreat” is remotely about presidents, as the title is taken from a line in the story, a line that comes late, is part of a longer sentence, and doesn’t really have all that much to do with the conflict. It’s more of a metaphor, if even that, so if you’re hoping I was going to tell you that this story was about Ronald Reagan, maybe with him as the protagonist and narrator, then sorry. I don’t even think it’s set in the eighties. No jelly beans, no Gipper quotes, no “Tear down this wall!” exclamations. Now that I list those, remembering Reagan’s grandfatherly voice and empty stare, I sort of wish this was from his POV, because, really, how awesome would that be? “Well, Nancy, let’s sells some weapons to people who will use them on us later.” What a gas!
Gabriel does more than well, though, with this story, with his book. As it turns out, the stories in Drowned Boy are related, depicting the life of two brothers, Nate and Donnie Holland, told from Nate’s point of view, sometimes in first, sometimes in third. “Reagan’s Army in Retreat” is the last story in the book, and I assume the last story on Gabriel’s timeline, and I read that piece first, knowing before I started it would be the subject of this write-up. I then read the first story, “Boys Industrial School,” and that’s when I realized what I had, that this whole thing was about the Holland brothers. That first piece puts the boys at 12 (Donnie) and 8 (Nate), while the last jumps ahead to Nate as a man, in his thirties, I’d guess, though it’s not clear. It’s interesting to read a series of related stories in that order, as if I’ve cheated, reading the end last, but it’s also got me more curious, as I want to read more, fill in the blanks, see how Gabriel went from point A to point Z with these brothers.
“Reagan’s Army in Retreat” begins with a bang, as Nate is sleeping in a tent, waking to the sound and sight of a Bowie knife ripping through the top, pointing at him, demanding to know what’s he’s doing there. Turns out, Nate has camped in what he thinks is Donnie’s yard, the yard of their childhood home (the same home they live in in the first story), only to find that Donnie has moved to Texas and a new family has bought the house and settled in. Nate talks the man with the Bowie knife down, who determines Nate is telling the truth about Donnie, whom he remembers, and invites Nate inside for breakfast. He trusts Nate so much, he departs for work and leaves Nate iwith his wife and small children. Nate stays, hoping to eat breakfast and find out about Donnie, all while being haunted by his childhood abode. It’s a great set-up for a story, the start with the knife slicing open the tent, the circumstances of Nate’s arrival, how he’s so quickly back in his former home. I’m jealous of how Gabriel pulls off this whirlwind.
So many things could happen next, and Gabriel decides the best thing to do is start a fire. Nate and the lady of the house attempt to light the wood stove, for various reasons, only to find the chimney is somehow blocked. At first, smoke enters the room, but soon, whatever is clocking the chimney is causing it to spew flames. Things begin to burn. All the while, there isn’t much panic—surely a blocked chimney stove couldn’t cause too much damage—and Nate even wanders outside at one point, just to catch his breath, maybe make a silent escape, the fire not really his concern.
Things escalate, however, become irreversible, even when Nate helps the family drag electronics and other valuables out to the deck. There’s a sense of urgency and there isn’t. It reminds me of Titanic, how people continued to carouse, to play music, to ignore the inevitable, even as it was happening around them. Nate soon recognizes the urgency, but it’s too late to jump in the life boats.
Once I knew the story was the last in a series of related stories, the burning house took on a much different meaning, that Gabriel is probably doing something more symbolic than I reckoned when I first read the story. Again, I know how the book starts—Donnie disappears in that first story, just like in this one—and I know how it ends. What Gabriel did in those twenty-five or so years with those characters is a mystery, but I will find out soon. What’s set up in these bookends is a good brother-bad brother narrative, a scheme that goes back to Genesis, a configuration I’ve always liked in stories, including “Sonny’s Blues.” These are beautiful, tragic stories about loss, about memory, about family, and I enjoyed them a great deal.
So, no real presidential President’s Day story to talk about today, though I’m betting that sooner or later this year, I’ll run across something and be like, “Oh, this would have been perfect for President’s Day! Millard Fillmore is angry, and you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry!” I got to read from a really good book instead, discover a new author, and experience a type of arc I don’t usually experience. That’s a win, for sure.