“The Owl That Carries Us Away” by Doug Ramspeck

Hello again, Story366! Back at you again on this Friday. Yesterday I posted a pic of all the books I recently received by requesting review copies, adding to my pile of must-reads. Later in the day I received a shipment of books I ordered from the Google, another nice stack:

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I’m getting back to a 2016-level pile of books to read and write about, which suits me just fine. Today’s entry is the seventeenth I’ve written this year, matching my 2017 total. Don’t know if I’ll ever get to my bucket-list goal of covering every short story collection—there has to be hundreds out there I haven’t read—but I’m enjoying my to-do list, one at a time.

Today is July 6, which is after the Fourth of July, that time every summer when I start feeling mortal, feeling that my long summer isn’t quite as neverending as it felt a month ago. I know I have six weeks left and can accomplish a whole lot in six weeks, but just as the days are getting shorter now instead of longer, I feel like the summer is slipping away in a similar fashion. It’s about this time I start to evaluate what I’ve done, check back on that mental list I make after I turn in my spring grades and start making plans to conquer the world. So far, I’ve done a nice job on Story366, one of my main goals this summer, and I’ve spent lots of quality time with the family. I’ve also sold beer at nine Cub games (I need to get in twenty to get rehired next year), and I’ve invested a lot of time with my son on Scouting (including a whole week at camp).

What I haven’t done is write a story a day (I used to do that when I was younger … and didn’t have kids or a house to take care of), nor have I made super-great progress on my novel-in-progress (i.e., none). Sure, I’ve done a little writing, but that’s about the best I can say: a little.

I’ve got a full slate of family fun planned this weekend—more on that when I get back—but the plan is, right now, for me to kick it into high gear starting Monday. Lots of writing, as in I should plan on ODing on writing, so much writing that I’ll have to change the ribbon in my laptop. Must write stories. Must make progress on novel. Must not squander three months away from teaching.

Isn’t it fun, this pressure we hoist upon ourselves?

For today’s post, I read from Doug Ramspeck‘s brand-new collection, The Owl That Carries Us Away, his debut book of fiction, just out from BkMk as its latest winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize. I’ve been familiar with Ramspeck for a while now—he has six previous collections of poetry—and am happy to see his fiction collected here. Ramspeck includes a lot of stories in his book, twenty-nine, as he writes a lot of shorts (and is damn good at it), but also includes his fair share of regularly long stories (though nothing over a dozen pages or so). I read a good smattering of the selections, long and short, and have—per usual—settled on the title piece for my entry, the volume-starting “The Owl That Carries Us Away.”

“The Owl That Carries Us Away” is about a kid, simply called “the boy” throughout the story, who is pretty messed up. Aside from the normal trials of being a kid, his messed-upness can be traced to his father’s recent botched suicide, Dad firing a gun into his head, leaving himself maimed, physically and mentally, instead of dead. Dad lies around a lot and mumbles incoherently, and can’t really get around without help. The boy is sad and his mother is sad, but they move on with life, though the dad is still bleeding inside his head, meaning more surgery and further loss of his faculties. It’s a shitty situation, which would explain why our protagonist, let alone anyone, falls on the fucked-up side of the normal scale.

While the boy’s mother cries a lot, the boy finds solace in an opossum skull he dug up from the river bank behind his house. The boy cleans the skull, examines it, touches it, and eventually, sleeps with it, running his fingertips along all the parts. He even sleeps with it on his chest like a teddy bear. Obsessed with the skull, the boy finds a shovel and searches and searches the riverbank for the rest of the opossum, digging and digging for the rest of his treasure.

On top of the problems with his dad, the boy is bullied on his bus by Biggs, a bigger kid who likes to punch him in the arm and tease him about his father (the failed suicide was news, of course). To make the situation even more of a nightmare, the boy’s mother has arranged for a play date between the boys with Biggs’ mother, who apparently uses bullying initiate chumhood. Surprisingly, the two get along for a while, Biggs bringing his BB gun to the boy’s house, the two of them soon out in the woods and shooting at small critters (mercilessly killing a bird … with extreme prejudice). The two become allies, though uneasy ones.

The story really goes awry when the boy entrusts Biggs with his secret, that he keeps the opossum skull in his closet. The boy brings it out of hiding, strokes it, stares at it, etc., and Biggs asks to take it home, borrow it from the boy for a while. Despite the boy’s adamant protests, the will-imposing Biggs walks out of the boy’s house with his prize possession.

Ramspeck takes his readers on a few more twists to the end of “The Owl That Carries Us Away,” details I won’t reveal here. There is also the titular owl, which I haven’t brought up yet, and all I’ll say is that the owl serves almost the exact same function as the large animals in Jess Arndt’s “Large Animals,” which I covered yesterday. All in all, “The Owl That Carries Us Away” is a tragic story, the story of a kid dealing with a tragedy, becoming a tragedy in his own right. I mean, this is textbook on how serial killers are born, right? Playing with animal skulls, killing small animals, etc.? It’s a well written, touching, shocking, and memorable story, one I gobbled up.

The book The Owl That Carried Us Away is full of stories like its title story, normal, once-happy people working their way through tragedies, dealing with massive adversity in bizarrely creative ways. It seems like every story features a secondary character dying or recently dead, those left behind serving as protagonists, catalysts of Ramspeck’s imagination; here, the author finds new reasons for someone to grieve, new ways for them to cope. “Ocho Rios” is about a guy whose wife dies from a brain hemorrhage on their honeymoon (like Private Benjamin!). “Crow Death” is about a kid whose mother has also suddenly died. “Folklore” is another story about a kid whose father has botched a suicide attempt. A father’s son goes to jail for killing his girlfriend in “The World We Know.” Ramspeck likes to write—in long, descriptive, dialogue-less paragraphs—about people who have been dealt a major blow, who have to overcome something really awful, then grieve in really interesting ways, be it loving an opossum skull or reliving a robbery through a Degas painting or imagining your father as a bear. I love those long paragraphs, how Ramspeck wanders through his characters’ thoughts, letting them roam, letting them work things out (or try to). Ramspeck is a damn fine writer and we’re lucky to have this first books of stories, to have all these offbeat, tragic tales in one place.

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