By Margaret Meyers
Entasis Press, $28, 234 pages
One of the advantages a collection of short stories has over the novel is the freedom for both the writer and the reader to weigh an important theme from a number of perspectives.
These 12 tales by Washington author Margaret Meyers examine one of the most vexing of our dilemmas in this troubled new century. For many of us raised in youth in the certainties of one religious faith or another, the collision with a real world where nothing can be relied upon can be traumatic. It is not whether we can believe in God anymore; rather, so much a question of whether God still believes in us. What if He has just stopped listening to our supplications?
What makes this collection noteworthy is how skillfully — and humorously — the author leads us through what could be a dour slog like the existential self-abuse of French intellectuals of 60 years ago. Ms. Meyers, who teaches at the Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs in Washington, D.C., is a rising star in the genre. Her earlier collection, “Swimming in the Congo,” was selected as the New York Public Library book of the year. So this second collection is a coup for Entasis Press, the local imprint rapidly gaining a national presence under the imaginative direction of founder Ed Perlman.
This collection is something of a buffet, where each story whets our appetite for the next item waiting for us. In “Swimming in the Congo,” Ms. Meyers drew directly from her experiences as the child of evangelical missionaries to the Congo in a series of interlocking tales told through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl.
“Dislocation,” however, gives 12 very human and very different characters, each of whom is dropped into an unanticipated conflict where what one has long accepted as specifically certain fails to provide an obvious solution. Are the challenges too insurmountable, or is the faith too inadequate?
While Africa and the missionaries who migrate there provide background for five of the stories, all 12 center on a widely diverse cast of central characters and plots. “The Eisenhower Jacket,” to name one, is the best portrayal I have ever read of the isolation, physical stress and sheer terror of an American infantryman caught in a freezing fog on the outermost front lines of the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes in December 1944. It is truly worthy to be ranked alongside Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” for putting the reader inside a soldier’s psychic skin.
Other stories feature a wide variety of settings and characters, from a perfume-counter clerk at Saks Fifth Avenue to the emotional traumas of the wife of 16th-century poet John Donne. She had borne him a dozen children until he took Anglican holy orders and renounced marital relations. Yet another tale is set in Renaissance Florence, Italy, after a flood.
In each story, the character has to deal with an article of received truth that does not seem to be working in this new situation. A female divinity student tries to cling illegally to her campus married-student housing apartment after her husband had left her. Her personal crisis is rubbed raw by the realization that many of her classmates are not so much pursuing a calling as striving for a degree with the same dedication that they might well use to get an MBA.
Ms. Meyers does return to her original construct of the religious role model whose faith is found wanting in an unexpected dilemma. In “The Thief,” a young evangelical missionary assigned to a rapidly deteriorating mission station in the Congo has to confront the fact that his near-starving flock of parishioners are providing him with more positive support than he is for them. When a repeated burglar begins to blackmail him, there is a collision between his strict sense of justice and his slow realization that mercy involves obligations.
One of the more charming interior monologues comes in “Doing Good,” set in 1960s South Africa, where the beginnings of the liberation movement took the form of sporadic labor strikes and boycotts of white transportation systems. In a resentful show of solidarity with the latest bus boycott, the mother offers a ride to a well-dressed and dignified African woman and then is clearly discomfited by her proximity in the car. The witness to this tension is the missionary wife’s 12-year-old daughter from her vantage point in the back seat. While she is acutely aware of her mother’s increasingly irritated dialogue and the passenger’s muted response, the girl is also distracted by the comparison between the passenger’s “nice bosom” and her own adolescent lack thereof.
Some of the stories have a wry bite to them, even as the voices are gentle and thoughtful. In “Sousaphone,” a preteen girl attending a school for the children of missionaries in the Congo applies to play a sousaphone that had been donated by American patrons for the school band. The school’s music teacher clearly thinks it is an unsuitable instrument for a girl to play, but she persists in her request.
“Birgit asks how it went.
“I tell her that Reverend Palmquist is quite sure that the Lord does not approve of girls playing the sousaphone, but he’ll ask Him just to be sure. He’ll get back to me a soon as the Lord gets back to him. Because the Lord moves in mysterious ways, it could end up taking a while.
“What a lot of getting back to people over playing the sousaphone .”
What a treat this collection is.
James Srodes’ latest book is “On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World” (Counterpoint, 2012).