Dec/Jan 2009

LONE STRANGERS

Lenora Todaro


Joe Ashby Porter has a knack for finding life’s small moments, gilding them with flights of fancy, then letting them drift away. Sometimes he writes viscerally, as in this description of a body’s decomposition: “[Grandpa] Guo dwindles to a specimen cicada husk boxed and buried near Wanda below the frost line.” And sometimes he writes opaquely, as when old lovers reconsider each other: “Resumption should be a bodily karaoke, ready (even still) to be carried away, if just as happy with the slow and steady, old sobriquets welling up, thigh across thigh, tasting.” All Aboard, Porter’s fourth volume of stories, toggles between these styles. Not unlike his previous collection, Touch Wood (2002), happenstance and sexual disorientation play key roles in characters’ lives, and as he did in The Near Future (2006), his third novel, Porter puts a droll spin on aging: Two of the meatier stories, “Solstice” and “Forgotten Coast,” take place on the birthdays of middle-aged men.

“Solstice” presents a portrait of forty-five-year-old Gooding Knowles, a “lapsed thespian and a wind farmer” living alone on his family’s Wyoming homestead. An aids survivor for twenty-four “bonus” years, Gooding has lived through the initial crisis in the ’80s, the agitations for legalizing gay marriage in the ’90s, and the hate murder of Matthew Shepard in nearby Laramie. Running parallel to his story is that of Penny St. Clair, a wayward concert-lighting specialist, whom he met in a regional theater company. When Penny shows up at Gooding’s door years later, Porter captures the strangeness of the moment as “each struggles to bridge the trembling gulf that yawns between the remembered face swathed in flattering retrospect and the naked one here lined and hollowed.” A strain of loneliness permeates this story, as it does the book as a whole, but in this instance Porter gives the reader a strong sense of a friendship lost and found, of two loners with “no obligations,” who can live together “side by side like civilized rural neighbors out here in the wind.”

In “Forgotten Coast,” Lou Grable, a computer programmer, celebrates his fifty-fifth birthday by taking a trip to his long-lost daughter’s house in Florida, intending to confess a discovery about his dead wife “that’s stood my very existence on its head.” As it happens, Lucy is out of town, so he meets Floyd, her husband, and Walter, her son, who has Asperger’s syndrome. Nevertheless, he needs to talk to someone, feeling “like a reincarnation of the mariner in the old poem, driven to divulge.” Finding an eager listener in Floyd, he recounts the courtship of his wife and the shock he felt at discovering on her laptop that as “Gingerbread Girl” she had been having a long-standing affair with “Trinket,” a woman. Although Lou never talks with Lucy, he does bond with his grandson, and they banter candidly about “normals” and “Aspies.” Yet when he leaves for his flight home, nothing’s changed. As he does in “Solstice,” which closes with Gooding hang gliding, Porter depicts a loner for a short period before sending him off into the atmosphere.

The mood in these stories is always changing: Nostalgia shifts into soft-core sex, and plainspoken language segues into dreamy lyricism. At times, the diction jaywalks brazenly, producing delicious turns of phrase (“ivy-sighing,” “a pang of roses”). Porter conveys the feel of an entire life in a tight morsel: “Penny follows a path of least resistance through school and junior college, cheerfully friendless, luckless with her business diploma, and scrapes by in a greater Oklahoma City Nehi bottling plant, three hairnets in eight years, cultivating her whittling hobby evenings and weekends.” Readers may experience these lives vividly, but the characters aren’t the sort that stick in your mind.

At its best, Porter’s wordplay suggests Kathryn Davis’s; his descriptions of gay life could be Dennis Cooper’s with the lights turned low, more easy listening than punk. But the author’s opacity can be maddening: In “Dream On,” a transvestite and her young accomplice interrogate a man to elicit an “anecdote” (about a child being stung by a wasp)—then, it seems, murder him by chainsaw. The scary, fablelike atmosphere, which presumably represents the complicated sex lives of these characters, dissolves into mumbo jumbo: “Complicity floats free in the eye of the inquisitor. Kiki with her awkward Adam’s apple and saurian Koshal themselves could qualify, if only by virtue of this matutinal outing, the tray of pliers and drill bits that may never before have seen the light of day.” After the anecdote is revealed comes the sophomoric coda: “The moral? Must anecdotes have them? . . . Do morals have morals? When is a moral not a moral? Do chickens have lips?”

While “Dream On” is decidedly unconventional, in “Pending” Porter relies too heavily on familiar flirtations. Fifty-nine-year-old Eric is a reference librarian with a waning libido and an extensive collection of “phalli, obsidian, teak, porcelain . . . triumphantly erect if somewhat beneath ‘life’ size.” He was once married, but now he maintains a long-distance relationship with a Japanese man. A lengthy build-up to a sauna encounter with a well-endowed stranger brings Eric’s soft-core imaginings to fruition, but the scene is clichéd, as if drawn from a Calvin Klein poster: “As Eric steals a rightward glance, moving only eyes, he sees that, while Charlie continues to gaze straight ahead as if daydreaming, his abs tighten.”

Despite their sometimes provocative subject matter, these stories are genteel. Porter is a desultory storyteller, snatching a character’s essence, then letting it go. This Zen-like approach has its appeal, but if there are truths lurking within these tales, they aren’t to be found on the page.

Lenora Todaro is a New York–based critic and writer and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.

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