July 19: “In an Uncharted Country” by Clifford Garstang

Hey there, Story366! Yesterday, me and the fam traveled back to Springfield from Chicago, eating up most of the day in the car. I am happy to report that we have made it back without incident, a day earlier than we thought, so we can pack for Cub Scout camp. As noted yesterday, this is Cub Scout Camp Week at Story366, meaning I’ll be offline a few days and need to get ahead on posts. To help accomplish that, I’ll be truncating things a bit, maybe skipping long intros and maybe reading stories on the short side. Otherwise, don’t worry, there will be stories and fires and knots and neckerchiefs, enough to go around.

For today, I read from Clifford Garstang’s collection In an Uncharted Country, out from Press 53. I’ve met Cliff several times and have always thought him one of the nicest guys in the room, no matter what room we’re in. I’m glad to finally be getting to his book this year, as it’s a book due some attention.

I read two stories from the collection, “In an Uncharted Country” and “Hand-Painted Angel,” and enjoyed them both for a variety of reasons. Thematically, they’re similar, and both stories feature large casts, families who know each other better than anyone in the world. Both families typical family crises, Garstang catching them at their most desperate hours. Both stories fall under the umbrella of strict realism and both have a melancholy, nostalgic feel, as both feature characters who have seen better days, who are working through tragedies by contacting the people who are most likely to understand them. I could have written on “Hand-Painted Angel” fairly easily, a story about a damaged family living through the holidays together, secrets abound, as well as a need for closure. I’ll stick with my habit of writing about title stories, though, so without further adieu, me on “In an Uncharted Country.”

“In an Uncharted Country” is the story of Walt, a guy who’s made the crucial decision to leave his wife, Patsy, months (or perhaps longer) after she’s miscarried her first pregnancy. They’ve been spending their days not talking to each other, not even making eye contact, Walt keeping her functioning, her sister Molly keeping her in alcohol. Walt, obviously still concerned about her well being, takes off, anyway, not leaving a note, not saying good-bye. It’s a solid opening, Garstang starting with such a dilemma, such a controversial move by his protagonist, leaving a wife who has been through what she’s been through. Walt believes he’s given everything that he’s got, though, and heads to brother’s place across town; Walt thinks about going farther, just leaving altogether, but the choice to land at his brother Anthony’s, and go to his landscaping job the next day, is key: Walt might be sending a message to Patsy more than he’s leaving for good.

The family dynamic expands at Anthony’s. He and Walt are tight, though Anthony’s wife, Ruth, mentions how Walt’s forcing them to take sides—i.e., she’s on Patsy’s side and is pissed at Walt. Again, Walt probably knew this was going to happen, knew Ruth was going to squeal, bring Patsy and Molly to Anthony’s. Sure enough, this is what goes down, Patsy and Molly, a little under the influence, pulling up to Anthony’s door for a confrontation.

I’ll not go any further, but will expand on themes. “In an Uncharted Country” is about a forces of will, what Walt can force himself to do, the inner struggle to make a hard decision. Garstang is smart to put his protagonist in such a gray area, as it’s hard to decide if Walt’s making the right choice. On one hand, his wife—obviously the love of his life—is going through a horrible tragedy, but on the other hand, nothing he does pulls her out of the gloaming works, not for a long time. The mere mention of counseling elicits the most hateful of reactions from Patsy. At what point is Walt justified in leaving? Some readers are going to say there is no point, as he needs to stay with her, for better or for worse. Others will see that he either needs to get out or he’ll go down with Patsy, that his presence in her life isn’t making much of a difference, anyway.

I like the stories in In an Uncharted Country, Clifford Garstang’s debut collection. He has a knack for situation, for drama, for finding those moments in real people’s lives that count the most. Solid work, for sure.

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