September 2, 2020: “The Widow Complex” by Gwen Goodkin

It’s a new dawn, Story366!

WordPress, the platform this blog is published on, has gone to a new format. I’m writing this now, but it’s the fourth try at getting it to work properly—the screen keeps going white, in the middle of sentences, and I have to reload the site to get back to this point, to continue typing. I’m not sure what’s going to happen here, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, so I’m going to try to write as much of this as I can before something goes awry. I would hate to see my streak broken by something like a technology issue. I still have over four hours today to figure this out, to finish and post, I’m a little nervous that something’s not going to go right.

By the way, while we’re on the subject, isn’t Facebook supposed to switch over today—yesterday—too? They’ve put in that mode automatically a couple of times and I’ve opted to go back to the classic format. I’ve been told it’s going to happen whether or not I like it, and soon. I guess I’ll figure it out. WordPress did offer, when I logged in, a choice to go back to the classic mode, but fuck me if I can find the button/control that performs that function.

So, hopefully, you’re reading this—of course you are, because you’re reading this. But from my standpoint, not yet finished, not yet published, I have my fingers crossed (making it even harder to type).

Today I read another book that was released on September 1—I had four of those, total—and sadly, could only do one on September 1 (I chose my old mentor and friend, George Looney. Gwen Goodkin is up next, today. Her brand-new book, A Place Remote, is her debut, released by West Virginia University Press. This is my virgin foray into Goodkin’s work, which is always awesome. Let’s talk about A Place Remote.

The lead story, “Winnie,” introduces us to RC, a guy from a small Ohio town who finds out a girl he knew in high school is studying at Miami, the one down in Oxford. Headed there to do some construction work, he decides to look her up. He’s always had his eye on her, considers her kind of wild, and thinks he’s got a good shot. The two do hook up, but not before Winnie puts him through some hoops, and in the end, leaves him without much explanation, or even a good-bye. We discover Winnie wants to make the best of her chance, distance herself from her former town, and even though she likes RC, he represents everything from which she’s trying to run away.

“A Boy With Sense” features Carter, a kid whose parents have split and as a result, split custody. Usually, he’s with mom (and his sister) in the city, but every other weekend he’s with his dad, usually at his grandparents’ farm. Carter loves the farm, especially his favorite cow, Pep. In general, he’s all about getting up before dawn, baling hay, milking cows, and doing everything a farmer does. Things take a turn, however, when his dad gets arrested for some domestic abuse, forcing him away from the family. Without Dad around to help, Grandpa has to sell off all the cows—except for Pep. At this point, though, Carter is jaded by the world, his vision of ideality broken, and makes a very adult choice.

The third and final story I read is the “The Widow Complex.” This one’s about a single dad, home after abandoning academia, taking care of his two kids, a boy and a girl. He’s a good dad, committing all his time and energy to his task, to playing with them, caring for them, making them his best friends—he actually says that at one point. It’s a common situation nowadays—a stay-at-home dad—but overall, it gives our guy a complex.

Only, not right away. Goodin only eases us in that direction. When the story starts, we’re actually focused on a spider, a black widow that lives in the family mailbox. There’s a lot of info, almost a montage, on black widows, as our guy teaches his kids how to identify a black widow, noting the differences between other spiders’ webs and eggs and a black widow’s. There’s even a flashback to a near-encounter with one in a swing, his young son exposed. All in all, the black widow becomes a motif, if not a character in the story, book-ending the overall tale.

In-between the black widow segments, we find out more about the dad, how he spends his time. Again, he’s all in, a good dad. Slowly, we also find out about his wife, the kids’ mom. Honestly, when she showed up in the story, nearly halfway through, I’d been thinking she was dead, that the widow motif would tie-in. But no, she’s alive.

And a vital part of the story. Yeah, this dad is a good parent, but there’s some backstory, not to mention resentment. He’s a PhD and former academic, and from what he says about literary theory—he hates it—it sounds like he either had a good job and quit or things never quite worked out. His wife, a successful advertising exec, isn’t directly antagonistic toward him, but at the same time, they’re clearly not intimate anymore, let alone in mutual respect of each other. Our guy is fine, overall, but it works on him, more and more, as things get tense, implying a sad ending to this union—though the story actually ends with the black widow in the mailbox, no clear resolution to this couple’s subtle division.

I like this story for a lot of reasons, the subtlety being at the forefront. I also see some of myself in this guy. Early on, there’s a lot of those Mommy’s-day-off? moments, people approaching him and his kids in public, assuming he was fumbling his way through some rare interaction with his kids, their real caretaker getting a much needed break. That happened to me all the time, especially with my oldest boy, people seeing me at the park, at the grocery store, even in front of our house, all making—and vocalizing—their assessment of the situation. In “The Widow’s Complex,” our guy develops a great comeback, overly agreeing with anyone who assumes his role, claiming to have no idea what he’s doing, hoping and praying he doesn’t kill his kids before he can get them back to his wife. It’s a good angle—I wish I’d thought of that, just to see the looks on people’s faces they dialed Child Services.

Gwen Goodkin was a new author to me, but not anymore. I’ve really enjoyed the stories from A Place Remote, connecting to the characters, guys who want pretty basic things, but find out that life doesn’t afford you anything, particularly the basic things. This makes for some compelling fiction and a fantastic debut. Congratulations to you on your book birthday, Gwen Goodkin! Kudos to you.

One thought on “September 2, 2020: “The Widow Complex” by Gwen Goodkin

  1. Pingback: September 3, 2020: “Make/Shift” by Joe Sacksteder – Story366

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