Monday, March 4, 2019

TACOMA STORIES :: Richard Wiley

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is republished here with permission

An eclectic assortment of dive bar owners, staff and patrons constitute "sixteen characters in search of a play on St. Patrick's Day, 1968" in the opening of Richard Wiley's Tacoma Stories. Following its heyday, Pat's Tavern is coasting into oblivion in Tacoma, Wash. The 13 stories that follow the introductory installment, "Your Life Should Have Meaning on the Day You Die," examine the lives of the players as they branch into the acts of their lives between 1958 and 2012.

One woman, daughter of two famous parents, visits Tacoma because "it's comfortable, it's beautiful, and it leaves me alone," wondering if a town can replace people and "hedge against the unabated loneliness of the human heart." Although place infuses Wiley's stories, it's the longing and wounded hearts that give them full color.

The search for meaning and connection is a common thread. In "The Man Who Looks at the Floor," retired spy Jonathan can't leave his spook days behind, enlisting his wife to be a "mole" and befriend a suspicious disfigured man. When Millie takes to the stranger, Jonathan begins to understand he's been paying attention to the wrong people all along. In "The Dancing Cobra," Wiley uses an accidentally misappropriated vibrator with humorous and touching effect to explore the relationships of several teens and adults.

Winner of the PEN/​Faulkner Award for Best American Fiction (Soldiers in Hiding), Wiley shines in the short form, absorbing the reader in slices of one town and its inhabitants while rendering them universal.

STREET SENSE: For fans of intertwined stories of loves, losses and longings over a lifetime; Wiley doesn't steer you wrong.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Whenever Mary thought of Annabella Sciorra, she also tended to think about Sister Wendy Beckett, the British art-critic nun who said, "God did not give me the dangerous gift of beauty" on TV. Mary, who'd been in bed with Earl, her lover, drinking wine and eating crackers when she heard it, reacted as if Sister Wendy Beckett were speaking directly to her. She had the gift of beauty, dangerous or not, and this semi-cloistered art critic was asking her what she was going to do about it. It was a turning point for Mary, who pointed at Sister Wendy Beckett's television image. "What if she had  been beautiful?" she asked Earl. "How would it have changed her life, and how would the lack of beauty have changed mine? If I were Sister Wendy, would you be here in bed with me, Earl, drinking this wine?"

COVER NERD SAYS: Cover gut picked me another winner. Wood grain, bar coaster, hint of a night full of cigarettes and booze. Sign me up. I had a feeling there would be some good stories lurking beneath the wear and tear.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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