For the Love of the Loose Cannon
I was biased going into Jim Tomlinson's short story collection, THINGS KEPT, THINGS LEFT BEHIND. Glad to report it met my high expectations.
The collection has eleven character-driven stories, most set in rural Kentucky. One of the book's characters, an old man on his deathbed, tells his nurse: "My son's a writer...he can imagine anything, make it up from nothing, and care like it was real." A good characterization of Tomlinson's work. Care is evident on every page--care for language, care for people, and not just fictional characters, but the very real aspects of ourselves that they represent.
What struck me most is Tomlinson's real sense of loose-cannon personalities: the stubborn elderly mother, the brother prone to violence, the businessman who suddenly drops everything, the young idealist who burns his draft card. The cranky, the war-broken, the adulterous--and the people who live with them--these are Tomlinson's cast, each portrayed with empathy and grace. The grace comes, I believe, from his precision. The prose is economical, but not sparse. The diction is regional, but never parody. Exasperation is always a product of familiarity, which goes hand in hand with love.
This juxtaposition of gentle telling with not-gentle characters is the key to the success of these stories. Tomlinson loves these characters the way flawed people love themselves, the way family members quarrel and reconcile. They are not rural eccentrics designed to entertain the rest of us with their novelty. They are essential beings, whose choices carry gravity.
This love of character is what makes realist fiction satisfying for me, when it is done well. I don't need neat endings or dramatic "arcs" or all that crap that short story people fetishize. What I need is to know that people are loved, even the difficult ones. And Tomlinson is one writer who understands why and how this love is a craft issue.