Hey there, Story366! Coming at you today with a review of “Perseids” by Zack Bean, from his collection Man on Fire, out from ELJ Publications. Before I get to his story, let me tell you about another instance where I almost died. A few weeks ago, I wrote about a time in which I almost drowned, pulled underwater by a slipping tide, while reviwing Gao Xingjian’s “Cramp.” Today’s near-death experience recount (there’s one more, which I’ll save for another day) wasn’t really all that near-death, but was a harrowing experience that could have been ugly.
I’d say it was eight-nine years ago, one summer night when the Perseids were in the sky. Karen, I, and our oldest (then only) boy were visiting my mom outside Chicago, at the house I spent my high school years. At the end of my mom’s block sits an elementary school, one that takes up an entire suburban block. The corner closest to my mom’s has a baseball diamond, while the school is situated on the opposite corner. That leaves a pretty large field, even beyond the baseball diamond, right near my mom’s house. That night, we walked down to the school to catch the Perseids, no trees or wires in the way.
In recent months, however, I’d noticed that the empty field had started attracting a lot of people at night, especially late. Large amounts of young men would meet up in the middle of the field, the middle of the block, the furthest point from any of the four surrounding streets. It seemed like they were just standing there, groups facing each other, hanging out. There wasn’t music, there wasn’t any fight club, and there wasn’t any real rowdiness. Just a lot of guys standing around. I’d noticed it several times while visiting, and my brother, who lives with my mom, said that he’d been noticing it, too. It was nothing we concerned ourselves with, nothing we’d called the cops about.
So the night of the Perseids, me, Karen, and that boy were standing on the corner, behind the baseball field backstop, staring up into the sky, watching these little white specks streak across the sky. It was cool. Not something you see every day. Pretty. Yay, astronomy!
Then we noticed the dudes in the middle of the field, about fifty yards from us. They were stirring. They were murmuring. They were pointing at us. They were looking at us. Then, for whatever reason, they started to walk toward us—twenty or so guys—with a purpose. Somehow, at an elementary school across from a Baptist church, in my mom’s quiet suburban neighborhood, a crowd of street toughs had formed and wasn’t happy that me, my wife, and one-year-old son were standing at a baseball field, looking up at the sky. It was like the Jets, the Sharks, the T-Birds, the Christpunchers, the Dreadnoks, the Warriors, the Gramercy Riffs, and even the Baseball Furies had pegged us for killing Cyrus, and we needed to go down.
We picked up our boy and started briskly walking toward my mom’s house. I looked at the dudes and they seemed to be picking up their pace, so we went into a jog. My mom’s house is only five lots from the corner, so it’s not like we had to get back to Coney from the Bronx. Still. Before we turned into my mom’s driveway, I looked back, and nobody was following us. Message received: Maybe don’t go look at astronomical wonders at midnight anywhere around Chicago, especially when you’ve been noticing groups of young men gathering there every night.
The tie-in to “Perseids” by Zack Bean is weak, at best, as it’s the title of the story, and near the end, the characters sit around and watch the Perseids fall in the sky. Since I came across a story with some Perseids, I thought it would be a good time to share my third-worst near-death story. I read other stories from Man on Fire—especially some shorts—and enjoyed every piece, minimal, gothic tales with stark imagery, matter-of-face voices, and lively characters in grotesque settings. I like “Perseids,” too, though, so that’s the story I’ll talk about today.
“Perseids” is about this unnamed kid, eleven or so, who is attending some kind of summer camp, though one in which he gets to go home in-between. (For someone who was at camp for four days and three nights, going home while camping doesn’t count as camping.) In any case, at home, he has his aged, dying grandfather living with him, whispering in his ear, while at camp, he’s got this kid named Fat Sammy bullying the shit out of him, holding his head under water until his fake eye pops out. Yeah, the kid has a glass eye—why, we never exactly find out—and later, after the water-boarding, it takes him and a buddy an hour to find it at the bottom of the lake. This is the type of story we’re dealing with: part nostalgia, part bitter realism. “Perseids” hooked me early.
From there, we meet several characters at this camp, the other kids. Aside from our guy and Fat Sammy, there’s Trashley, a ginger girl that our protagonist despises and bullies himself; Cynthia, the pretty girl that our boy likes; her boytoy, Mikey, who gets a turn with his head in the lake; and Bobby, our hero’s buddy. These kids seem to act like kids, Bean doing a nice job of showing how kids can be really fickle, one day siding with one kid, the next day siding with someone else, on a whim, or because it benefits them. The politics of this camp are important, as it’s all building to something.
Remember, though, that the kid’s dying grandpa is also a heavy influence on him day to day. The old man is not only dying, but he’s preparing for death, sharing secrets with our boy, revealing life facts he’s not uttered for decades, e.g., his World War II experiences, which were pretty graphic. He’s also worried about his name carrying on, so he’s trying to toughen his grandson up, point him down the breeding path. Overall, he’s not that great of an influence, especially when he starts pulling out old weapons he’s had locked up, leaving them around as he gets back to dying.
The two storylines converge, as you might guess, the grandpa’s influence, Fat Sammy acting like a real dickhead every day at camp. I’ll not reveal anything else about the plot, leaving that for you to find out on your own, so I’ll move over to style. Bean has a deliberate pace to his work, this ten-pager written in half-page vignettes, each scene specific in what it offers toward the arc, toward the tension’s culmination. Adding to this is the unreliability of the narrator; the story’s told in third person, though it’s a tight third person, and it mimics the naiveté of our young protagonist, the air of innocence contrasting the impending collision that seems inevitable. Bean makes us feel like this narrator is finding everything out as we do, a neat trick, a style that really makes the story work.
This is the first work I’ve read by Zack Bean and I’m already a fan. I read his stories last night and they stayed with me all day, and I barely had to look back on them to write this post. Man on Fire is a find.