October 18: “Slow Stately Dance in Triple Time” by Anne Sanow

Hey there, Story366! Tonight I really should have been writing this since the start of the Cubs-Dodgers game, but I didn’t, but that’s just as well. As of now, it’s the bottom of the eighth and the Dodgers are up 4-0, which is no fun. I certainly could have been blogging all along, giving score updates, but in retrospect, that would only be fun for Dodgers fans and people who don’t like me (though there’s plenty of both). So, without spending a whole lot of word count on that right now—saving it for the (gulp, 5-0 now) comeback—I’ll get on to the story.

Today I read the first three stories from Anne Sanow‘s collection Triple Time, out from the University of Pittsburgh Press as a winner of their Drue Heinz Literature Prize. I was not familiar with Sanow’s work going in, so I didn’t know what to expect. The first story, “Pioneer,” is set in Saudi Arabia, focusing on a kid whose dad has dragged the family to the other side of the world, despite some unfavorable circumstances, for what seems like a not-great job. The next story, “The Date Farm” is also set in Saudi Arabia, and the third, “Slow Stately Dance in Triple Time,” isn’t set in Saudi Arabia, but follows an American and his … Saudi friend, as the globetrot the world … and end up in Saudi Arabia. Okay, so there was a clear pattern forming. I read the jacket for some intelligence and yep, Sanow has written an entire book of stories set in this particular foreign country.

I just spent an entire paragraph establishing that fact. Am I distracted? Maybe. But the Cubs just lost 6-0, going down 2-1 in the series (which is bad). Now I can focus on Sanow’s work (which is really good).

Today I’m going to write about that third story, which is most like the title story of any story in the book, as it’s called “Slow Stately Dance in Triple Time,” adding some words to Triple Time because Sanow’s the author and she made that choice. Something else she did was create an intricate, beautiful piece of fiction. “Slow Stately Dance in Triple Time” starts off being about Gus, this pilot from Texas who has finished his tour in World War II (the story starts in 1946) and doesn’t feel like going home after. He and his friend Basim, who had been studying at the University of Cairo when he joined the North African Forces to help the Allies, travel the world, making their way to the most exotic ports, experiencing what they can as young, cocky men who have nowhere better to be and no real plan. They have resources—Basim comes from a wealthy family, we soon find out—and the young men make a whirlwind of their victory tour. What adventures will Gus and Basim get into? I figured that this is where the story was going, the exploits of this enigmatic twosome. Of course, I was wrong.

The story soon utilizes a more omniscient narrative, getting into several of its characters’ heads, including Gus, then Basim, and then Basim’s family, as that’s where the boys, and this story, land: Basim’s family date plantation and ranch. It is to be one stop on their tour of the world, but it turns out that the pair stay longer, as it’s harvest time and Basim is needed. Plus, he’s been gone a while and his family loves him. Basim is the smiling brother, the one his five sisters love, the one who his father, Fadil, puts his arm around at the fire while Basim’s older brother, Omar, sulks off by himself. And that’s the long and the short of the story, really, Gus and Basim’s visit with Basim’s family.

“Slow Stately Dance in Triple Time” jumps around like no piece I’ve seen. We get back to Gus eventually, but he’s become a background character after the opening that seemed to exalt him as the protagonist. Basim is the true hero of “Slow Stately Dance in Triple Time,” but even he falls into secondary status, his sisters taking the center stage, particularly the two youngest, Thurayya and Ghusan, who are, by the way, Basim’s full sisters; Fadil had four children with one woman, then three more with her sister (Basim’s mother) after she died. The story is fascinating in this way, as it’s really a buffet of these different characters’ lives, problems, futures. The Omar-as-second-favorite-but-heir-son plot probably takes precedence, but even that storyline falls away, making room for another . Again, I’ve never read anything quite like it, so random, yet so coherent, so holistically gorgeous.

Sanow pulls some other tricks in the story, like switching more than just character perspectives, but also person, one section from the perspective of the five sisters, describing Basim. I’ll say it one more time, I’ve never quite read anything like it. Do I completely understand every move and could I explain it, right now, in detail, to a class full of student, if I had to? “Mostly” is the best answer I would give. Still, the language is precise, the characters well defined, and the moves daring. I’ve read this story twice now, it reminding me of why I started Story366, to find a few stories like this, stories I can’t quite define but admire, anyway.

Anne Sanow has a bold collection in Triple Time (which also won the 2010 PEN New England/L. L. Winship Award for Fiction), one I liked reading from very much.  She’s vastly talented—plus seems to know a lot about Saudi Arabia—and I’m glad I came across her book.