“The Last Island” by William Wall

Good day to you, Story366! Coming at you on another beautiful but hot day in Southwest Missouri.

I have been enjoying the freedom of the house to myself this week—this whole month, in fact. My kids are in summer school and the Karen is at work at the paper, and since my class this summer is online, I have from about nine until three every day to do what I want. This hasn’t actually happened all that often, as Karen used to work from home for the most part, and the kids, well, the kids seemed like they were always here, even when they weren’t. Months would go by sometimes without this type of solitude, Karen’s weekly trip to church on Sundays with the boys the only time I could ever rally count on. This month, though, I have a home base.

I’m not sure why I’m bringing this up, or why it’s important I have time alone in my house. I often retreat to my campus office for this alone time, and really always have, when I was in Bowling Green and now here in Springfield, as that’s how I get work done, with quiet isolation, as few distractions as I could manage. And today, after a couple of hours of piddling around the house, doing chores and finding excuses to lie down on the couch, I got dressed and went to my office again. I needed to check my mail and water my plants, sure, but I’ve gotten used to working at my office. So I went there, leaving the aloneness. I have a big desk and my office computer has twice the screen that the laptap has that I use at home. I can open up a few windows at once, listen to all my music there (on that computer’s iTunes), and stretch out. So, even with time to be alone, in my own abode, I found myself wondering off.

I think there’s some nostalgia involved in all of this home alone time, going back to my time as a pre-teen and young teenager, my parents starting to trust me at home, left alone without supervision. As a coddled and overprotected kid, I remember that step being important for me, how I relished it, looked forward to it. Not that I had anything particular planned, but it was another rung up the maturity ladder. My parents could go to church or play bingo or go shopping and they could trust that I wouldn’t hurt myself, burn the house down, or let evil strangers through the door. They gave me a key. I was growing up, and as the accidental youngest of seven kids, that meant a lot. Sure, one time I watched the turn the corner down the street, ran to a pack of firecrackers I had stashed, then blew them off behind the garage. And before long, the masturbation started, so then …. Overall, though, I came to associate being alone, in my house, with being an adult. Maybe that’s why I’ve been feeling so important this past week, like some sort of king: I’ve been having some programmed response to feeling like an adult, to feel like I matter. The funny thing is I have some leftover fireworks from the Fourth. And regarding masturbation, ….

For today’s entry, I read from William Wall‘s latest collection of fiction, The Islands: Six Fictions, winner of a Drue Heinz Literature Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Wall is the author of a bunch of previous books, including novels and poetry and short story collections, though I don’t think I’ve read anything by him before today. I’m always a fan of what the Heinz competition has to offer, so I was happy to receive and jump into this latest of their efforts.

I read a few of the stories from The Islands, skipping over the novella-sized opener, “Grace’s Story,” as I just don’t usually read anything that long for Story366. I moved ahead to a couple of short pieces in the middle before settling into the somewhat longer end story, “The Last Island,” which seemed like the closest thing to a title story, at least from glancing at the table of contents. Soon, I found out this plan might have been a mistake, as most of the six stories in the book are interconnected, using the same characters and following a pretty consistent timeline. I didn’t find that out until I was done with “The Last Island” when I realized this story’s protagonist was named Grace, as in “Grace’s Story.” But hey, I read what I read and I think I read the overall story’s ending: No going backwards now.

Because these stories are related and because I’m writing on the final chapter, I’ll probably give more about the book away than I usually would, but again, it is what it is. “The Last Island” is indeed Grace’s story, a grown-up version of the girl in the previous stories, a psychologist who is visiting her father for his seventieth birthday. The titular island is an island off the northwest coast of Ireland, the edge of Europe, Wall proclaims, the latest island the father has taken refuge upon. Grace arrives and her father meets her at the ferry, and from the get-go, there’s a tension in the air, as if these people don’t get along. Or maybe like they’re not daughter and father. But Grace settles into the guest room of his house and from there we wait to see what’s up.

The story is cut into seven chapters, and in the second chapter, we discover that Grace has a sister, Jeannie, and a mother, Jane, who is dead now but spent time in a mental facility after the girls’ younger sister, Emily, died tragically (really, the only way children can die). After their parents divorced, Grace ended up with Jane and Jeannie with the dad, meaning that Grace saw Jane fall apart after Emily’s death, watched her dwindle until she had to be committed. This chapter catches us up on the dynamics of the family, and really, I’m guessing, on the book as a whole, so it’s a handy chapter. We now know that, in short, this family has a lot of baggage.

From there, more family members and other guests start arriving for the birthday celebration, which is going to include, we find out, the shooting of a documentary about Grace’s dad, a famous writer. Jeannie arrives next, and then Bill, Grace’s estranged husband, who is leading the film crew. Grace and Bill don’t seem to get along very well—Bill can’t keep it in his pants, we’re told (just like Jane, we’re also told)—and sure enough, Grace uses this island getaway as an opportunity to serve Bill with divorce papers. Bill, who is already staying on the island with a young assistant, isn’t all that upset, but the two manage to toss vicious barbs at each other regardless.

The story, and the book, I guess, culminates in a climactic dinner sequence on the dad’s birthday, everyone in the same room at the same time (including the dad’s new wife, an Italian bombshell [think Jay and Gloria from Modern Family]), everyone finally getting a chance to air grievances that have festered for about 125 pages of short fiction. “The Last Island”—a title that appears to be more than a subtle metaphor—is a story about people coming together, not so they can come together, but so they can address old wounds, strike new ones, and drink a lot of wine.

The story, and this collection, are more than these people and their tragic circumstances, however. Wall is a true master of the image, of the sentence, and putting one into the other. His striking descriptions of the island, of all the settings of his stories, is truly remarkable. As is his style, a sprawling, free sort of narration that follows Grace in and around her head, lavishly detailing her hopes and fears, stopping sparsely for quick lines of (unquotation-marked) dialogue. Wall seems as much of a poet as he is a fiction writer, his words placing me on his islands, with his characters, at a level so few writers can muster.

William Wall’s The Islands is a nice find in Story366, reminding me why I still do this blog: So I can find new writers, read more books, and learn something from people who write differently than I do. Wall checks all three boxes today, a fine way to spend my day alone, on my own island.

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