Where the Body Ends
by René LeBlanc
Published in 2014 by Queen’s Ferry Press
Reviewed by David Eric Tomlinson
Near the middle of René LeBlanc’s moving new short story collection Where the Body Ends, a presenter at the Texas State Autism conference holds up a text which has been highlighted and diagrammed, saying to her audience: “This is one way you’ll help your more advanced students learn to connect the content of the text with the questions they’re asked at its end.” The author is challenging us to look past the surface of these sparse sentences and draw our own conclusions about the lives they describe. For those readers up to the task, the payoff can be magical.
We are asked to consider ordinary, often broken characters who struggle against the complications of everyday life: a young trophy wife whose alcoholic, older husband loves her … but not as much as his 1974 Kharmann Ghia; a plasma donor who is kicked out of her aunt’s house after posing for some artsy nude photos; a young car salesman involved in a tawdry relationship with his best friend’s not-quite ex-wife; and several stories populated with exhausted, disillusioned parents of the autistic or developmentally delayed.
It’s a world where “an interior winter” has set in, where “trash refused transformation, stayed trash.” Where relationships are ruined by infidelity and yet persist, held together by the illusions of physical attraction or sex or just booze. Where the responsibility of raising children – especially difficult ones – seems like punishment for some original, familial sin. And where the rituals we take for granted – timeworn routines like hunting for deer, or writing a family newsletter, or simply shopping for a car – are as divorced from their original purpose as to seem meaningless. “Artemis is mythological,” says the mother of our hunter in the story First Buck, “the people who constructed her had to hunt. A woman hunting today is a parody, not a personification, of the myth’s spirit.”
And yet the myths – and, more importantly, the women – persist. LeBlanc’s characters are drawn to fables, hoping some of that fairy tale dust might transform their humdrum lives (references to The Snow Queen or Artemis or Genesis or epic poetry abound). “People in Texas are hopeful,” begins one story, “which is what will bring them back to disaster.” But though the situations are mundane and the lives seemingly ordinary, this isn’t dirty realism. More often than not, LeBlanc’s characters manage to rise above their circumstances – if only briefly – and forge some deeper connection with family, friends, or the wider world.
“If I could just understand,” says the narrator of the wonderful story Snow Queen, “I would be serene.” The “if” is the problem here. Understanding isn’t possible in these parts, and so serenity can only be approximated. All we can do is try, and fail. Then pick ourselves up and try, try again. In an ending that took my breath away, this story’s narrator ends a fight with her husband, offering what will be just a temporary olive branch.
But offering, nonetheless:
“I’m reading a story about lost kids and searching. Come on, let’s finish it together.”
Jason looked up at me, stubborn. Anger? Love? I felt both. I held out my hand to pull him up, and he took it.
– David Eric Tomlinson has been a member of the Writer’s League since 2013. He was born and raised in Oklahoma, educated in California, and now lives in Texas. You can learn more about him at www.DavidEricTomlinson.com