“In the Village of Elmsta” by Jensen Beach

Say hey, Story366! It’s been almost two weeks since I last posted. That last offering, on Melissa Goodrich’s fine debut collection, was straight from the Moon City Press table at the AWP Book Fair, in the heat of moment, interested attendees stepping up to our display from the right and from the left. This was at the very beginning of the while shebang, too, on Thursday morning, right after setting up and settling in. Really, AWP hadn’t happened yet, and today, I’m finally getting around to my report.

Like every AWP for the last six or seven years, my personal time was split between two factions of AWP, that Book Fair and then the off-sight events held around the host city (DC this time) in the evening. From 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., I was anchored to the table—save breaks for lunches each day, when the table was covered by the lone student-editor from Springfield to attend the conference. Otherwise, it was all me, all the time, and really, that’s what I prefer. I’m very proud of the books that MCP puts out, and at this point, four years into that foray, we’ve garnered quite the catalogue. It’s thrilling for me to sit there, all of these beautiful titles on display, all of them together, tilted on bookstands, and see people come up and genuinely react as if impressed. Dozens of times, conference goers told me how incredible our books look, and for me, that’s enough to make me want to stay in the Book Fair the entire time (of course, I have almost nothing to do with how the books look on the outsise, as that’s handled by MCP’s designer, Charli Barnes).

On top of that, me sitting at a table in the Book Fair is the best way for me to run into people I know, people who are looking for me, people I only see once a year, at the Book Fair, while I’m sitting at a table. There’s a lot of those types, former students and colleagues—it’s always a bit of a Bowling Green MFA reunion at these things—writers I’ve published, and even the occasional person who has read my books and -gasp!- wants me to sign a copy. You know how they tell you when you’re a kid that if you’re lost, stay in one place, then the people looking for you will eventually run into you? That’s me at AWP: If I’m in one place, everyone can find me.

After 5 p.m., Karen—who attended for the first time in five years, making my whole conference—and I hit the town and attended off-sight events. On Friday, we scooted across town to Karen’s reading for Sundress, where we saw about a dozen fantastic poets read, Karen being the last. Then we split up and I saw this awesome reading that featured five new authors who had just published story collections, including Michelle Ross (whose There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You just came out from MCP), Matt Fogarty (whose book I blurbed), Sequoia Nagamatsu (ditto), and Allegra Hyde and Dana Diehl, both of whom I featured on Story366 last year. What a great evening, seeing the sweet Karen read from her new book, take in another batch of great poets, and then see these five young writers read together. Thursday night was the best night of the conference.

On Friday, Karen and I high-tailed to Catholic University and saw perhaps the most impressive lineup of poets I’ve ever seen performing together. The whole thing was a celebration  of female poets over the age of sixty and included luminaries like Michelle Boisseau, Marianne Boruch, Terese Svoboda, Rosellen Brown, Robin Becker, and several others. Not sure if I’ll see a line up like that again, and to boot, all of the poets read a poem by another poet they admired, women like Louise Glück, Ruth Stone, and Mary Oliver. It was a long event, but they had prosciutto and wine, so I wasn’t exactly in a hurry.

Karen and I had a plane leaving Saturday night, so the last day of the Book Fair was all about me trying to get rid of stock. We gave out nine boxes of the new Moon City Review during the conference—as a still-newish mag, I think it’s more imperative to get the word out than it is to sell a handful of copies at full price—and by 2 o’clock, we were out of everything, meaning all I had to cram into my carry-ons was the MCP table skirt and a dozen bookstands.

Sadly, that doesn’t include what I bought/picked up at the Book Fair, which, this year, was only two books. One was The Real Natasha by Michael Leone from the fine people at Braddock Avenue Books, which I’ll write about here soon, and a copy of The Santa Fe Literary Review, which one of their editors dropped off at our table. Two books?! From that HUGE-ASS Book Fair?!  That’s my only regret of AWP 2017, that I never really made my rounds, talked to editors, got the skinny on new lit journals, or picked up more collections for this project. Next year, I’ll have to make that my priority, because really, what a waste of a fantastic event, of a fantastic resource.

I almost just wrote a paragraph about our travels from the conference back home, how it was kind of a pain and long and complicated, but then I realized that a) I’m almost a thousand words into this and haven’t talked about Jensen Beach yet, and b) a rundown of our travel stories—planes, trains, and automobiles—might be the most boring thing ever.

That said, 961 words in, I’ve been reading from Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold, out from Graywolf, for a couple of weeks now, which I guess is the rate at which I read books post-2016. In any case, I’ve known Jensen and his work for a bit, and should disclose that he works for Green Mountains Review, which took a story of mine a few years back. But in any case, I was happy to see this collection announced for last year, and am happy to finally get to it. As noted, I’ve read several stories from the collection—which is made up on interlinked tales, set in Sweden over a two-year period—but I really love a lot of things about the opening story, “In the Village of Elmsta,” so here we go.

“In the Village of Elmsta” is a story with a unique structure and approach to POV, which for me more and more seems to be determining factor when picking a story; I teach, so craft is important, and anyone who breaks from the Freitag model is going to grab my attention. In any case, this story starts off with a really engaging and funny anecdote about this guy named Rolf Strand, who lives in Elmsta—not far from Stockholm—who has just played the best tennis of his life. Rolf is in his seventies, so that means something, especially since he’s just defeated a retiredSwedish tennis hero (who twice made it to the semis of the French Open). This seems impressive, but Beach lets leak, rather casually, that this tennis pro is not only old and retired, but that his arm—his playing arm—is now a  prosthetic. In close psychic distance, this is a brief but key detail in accessing Rolf’s psyche, and it’s pretty funny to hear someone brag about an athletic feat, only to find out soon after it was against a one-armed opponent.

As the story moves forward, Rolf heads home on his bicycle and is planning on calling his son when he gets there, planning on inviting him for dinner. He is a beaming father, proud papa, and along with his late-life tennis accomplishments, Rolf becomes a really likable guy. Which is too bad, because Rolf, a few pages later, dies, only about a third of the way into the story. Beach has Rolf ride home on his bike, alongside a canal, where he sees a sailboat moving alongside him. Rolf sees the bridge ahead of them, knows that if he doesn’t beat the boat to the bridge, he’ll have to wait for it to be raised and then put back down, so he high-tails it. When he’s just about to the bridge, he has an accident, one that sends him over his handlebars and into the canal, where he bumps his head on a rock. Profuse bleeding commences. Rolf settles on the shore, blood pouring out of his head, and he even tries to signal the people on the sailboat that he’d just raced to the bridge, people who wave back as if he’s just saying hi. Rolf dies, sitting on that shore.

After a space break, Beach backtracks a bit to that sailboat, to the guy whose captaining it, right before the aforedescribed events. Our pilot is Henrik Brandt and he’s taking a leisurely trip with his wife, Lisa, a colleague named Peter, and Peter’s wife, Helle. We get into Henrik’s head, him recapping things for us, letting us know that Peter and Helle are staying with Henrik and Lisa for the week. Just as he’s about to cross the bridge, he sees Helle waving at someone on the shore, a man sitting next to a bicycle—of course, readers know it’s Rolf and he’s not waving—but inside Henrik’s head, it’s just a happy-go-lucky guy, sitting with his feet in the canal, out for a bike ride. The bridge goes up and down and the quartet anchor their boat and resume their vacation at Henrik’s house.

Remember, Henrik’s POV takes up the last two-thirds of the story, and as much as I’ve already revealed—I toyed with not telling you about Rolf’s demise at all—I won’t go much further. I will say that this is really Henrik’s story and Beach captures him at a key point in his life. He’s just taken a new job, he and Lisa are at odds, and oh, during this weeklong visit, he’s initiated a passionate affair with Helle. When everyone finds out about Rolf’s death, deducing that he was the one sitting on the shore and he was not waving, all of Henrik’s thoughts and troubles explode from the background and cause quite an ado.

Reading a story where the POV focus dies a third of the way through, only to pick up with another POV—a person who saw him die—isn’t groundbreaking (think “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”), but it’s still rare enough to take note of, to remember, to write about. That’s not to underscore anything else that Beach does in this story, as his characterization of both men is pretty in-depth and he has a knack for description, putting me right there on that shore. Most of all, he’s smart enough to catch a couple of people at crucial junctures in their lives, understanding how that makes the best kind of fiction. I literally just told my students that on Friday, how important this is, and then I read Beach’s story, the perfect example.

“In the Village of Elmsta” is just the first story, too. Some of these characters return in later entries, sometimes as the protagonists, sometimes as supporting characters. What’s the overall end of these stories, two days in Sweden that we see through a variety of its people? I can’t say for sure yet, as I haven’t gotten that far. What I have read, though, showcases a writer utilizing his incredible skill set. I’m so pleased I picked this book up and spent some time with it. My rec is you do the same.