November 28: “If the Sky Falls, Hold Up Your Hands” by Nicholas Montemarano

S’up, Story366? The long, nine-day break is over and my family and I returned to school today. To fend off any potential problems, we tried our best to go to bed early last night, get that amount of sleep that we got used to getting over break, but to no avail. The three year old just wouldn’t go down, fighting for over an hour before succumbing. When it was time to get up, he simply replied, “No!” and when I prodded, he insisted, “I need the sleep!” I carried him down the stairs and force-dressed and fed him and carried him out to the car. He cried all the way to school. By the time I walked out of his daycare, I was shaking, shaken. Not the best start to the semester’s home stretch, but it could only get better from there (and it did—I like teaching, so it was good to get back to it).

Something that came up in my graduate workshop was The New York Times“100 Notable Books of 2016,” which appeared today. I’ve known this for a long time, but “book” to many people in the world means something nonfiction—which I almost never read—and TNYT always dedicates exactly half of its yearly list to works that fall under that umbrella. Of the fifty books under the “Fiction & Poetry” heading, exactly three can be classified as collections of short stories. One is Alexander Weinstein’s Children of the New World, which I’ve covered already on Story366, a micro-fiction collection by Joy Williams, and a novel-in-stories by David Szalay (both of which I hope to cover in the coming month). Am I a bit disappointed by this? More than. Is this the same argument as the one I made earlier this year, when the long list of twenty National Book Award finalists came out and zero story collections were featured? Yes, yes it is. Since then, Dan Wickett, Amber Sparks, and I have been working (occasionally) on putting together a list of all the story collections released in 2016, and if my figures are correct, we’re in the mid-two hundreds. Only three of those were in the top fifty for the year? None, according to the NBA? Ugh.

During the discussion I had with my students, I pointed out that The New York Times had not read every book that came out this year, nor did the National Book Committee. I can’t say for sure how books get nominated or how many books they do consider, but I’m guessing that with TNYT, they probably start with the books that they’ve reviewed. In some ways, that makes sense, as if a book wasn’t worth reviewing in their eyes, then why make it a notable book overall? As the editor of a small literary press (Moon City Press), it all gives me pause. We send all our books to TNYT for consideration to be reviewed, and in the two years I’ve been making books for MCP, they’ve yet to review one (in fact, we just sent off our latest, Michelle Ross‘s There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, today). I realize they can’t review every collection, let alone read them, but when these lists come out, it’s a blow to realize that our books, these authors’ books, aren’t even in the running.

Of course, like with the NBAs earlier this year, I’m sure all the books on this Notable list are good, worthy books—I’m not clamoring for any of them to be removed or replaced. It’s a solid list, full of diversity, full big names and newcomers, piebald with some smaller presses like Graywolf (if they can be considered a small press at this point), Biblioasis, and Two Dollar Radio. Of course, I have to admit that I’ve not read all the books on their list, nor will I. As a fan of the short story, perhaps the fan (this year, anyway), it just sticks in my craw that there’s not more than three books out of fifty that are story collections. In fact, I find it incredulous. That’s my point.

It would have been cool if somehow I’d timed the Williams or Szalay book for today, but it would have been a case of tremendous serendipity had that worked out. Or, if I’d picked up Nicholas Montemarano‘s collection If the Sky Falls (out from LSU Press as part of their Yellow Shoe Fiction series) on November 15, as then I could have written about Montemarano’s story “The November Fifteen.” That didn’t miraculously pan out, either. I did get to read a couple of stories from the book, include the (semi-) title story, “If the Sky Falls, Hold Up Your Hands.” I like this story a lot, and since I like (semi-) title stories, let’s go with it for today.

“If the Sky Falls, Hold Up Your Hands” is about this sixty-something-year-old guy named Paul Gruber who at the outset of his story watches his daughter die, describing it in detail. Right off the bat, Montemarano hits us pretty hard and things can only get better from there, right? Not really. We soon find out that this death bed scene is the first time Paul has seen his daughter, Lois, in fifteen years. It’s terribly depressing, of course, the death, the estrangement, the occasion of their reunion, but at least they’ve had a couple of weeks to get to know each other (Lois has become very new-agey and has relented to death, believing her energy is being released back into the universe, that sort of thing). So, pretty brutal.

The rest of the story, more or less, backtracks, explaining how we got to this point, how Paul and Lois reached this tragic reunion. We find out in a piece of way-back backstory that Paul, as a child, ran into a guy on his paper route who looked just like his grandma, and when he asked his mom about said guy, his mother explained that he looked like his grandma because he was her brother, a brother she had not spoken to in fifty years, despite them living literally two blocks apart in Philadelphia. Young Paul has a hard time wrapping his mind around this and tries to reunite the estranged siblings, only to find out that his grandma and great uncle would rather just go on not speaking to each other ever and die than make peace. Does it affect Paul? Of course it does. It’s a backstory scene and that’s how stories work.

Paul would never have thought he’d grow up and see this very thing happen between him and his only child, yet, that’s the story here. We get a lot of introspection/interior monologue/philosophizing on Paul’s part, wondering how this could have happened. Paul, if you haven’t guessed, is rather unreliable, however, as no matter how it pains him for he and Lois to be so dramatically at odds, he turns down chances to rectify the situation, to make amends. One time his ex-wife (who divorced him right after he and Lois stopped speaking) calls him to talk Lois out of marrying an abusive boyfriend. Paul refuses, and lo and behold, Lois marries the guy and gets abused. Years later, Lois calls him, posing as a polling agent, and Paul refuses to acknowledge it’s her, or that he has any children, Lois practically begging him to reach out.

The irony is not lost on Paul that it took his daughter’s imminent death to end his stubbornness, to visit her, to sit bedside as she expires. Sure, Montemarano gives away the ending—Lois’ death—in the first sentence, but it’s not simple, as there’s more complications between these people along the way, right up to the end. It’s an intense story, in a lot of ways, but not, in others.

Years ago, like in 2000, I published a piece by Nicholas Montemarano in Mid-American Review, “In All These Ways,” in which a man shatters a glass pitcher against his wife’s head in the first sentence, then spends the rest of the story in backstory anecdotes and introspection as to how it was possible for him to commit such a vile act. Another story from If the Sky Falls features a guy whose sister calls him up, begs him to drive three hours up from New York City upstate to rescue her from her abusive husband; most of this story, “Note to Future Self,” takes place inside the guy’s head, long paragraphs of exposition where he considers his moves, reckons his decisions. So, in three stories, I’m sensing a pattern, all of them dealing with violent/deadly occurrences in the first line, all of them including spousal abuse, all of them featuring lots and lots of inner consideration by the protagonist, sometimes as the abuser, sometimes not. I’m not saying that every Montemarano story is like that—it’s unlikely that this is the case—but in three stories that I’ve read, I am recognizing some common themes.

No matter what the case, however, I admire what Montemarano does. He writes great sentences that make up great paragraphs, featuring unreliable men trying to convince themselves what they’ve done, what they’re doing (or not doing) is the right thing, that they’re good guys, whether they’re the powerless hero or the empowered villain. It’s a unique take on character. These stories stand out because of it.