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Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of Joe Meno’s The Great Perhaps that was less than favorable. Having failed to find much satisfying in that book, I thought I owed both Meno and myself a second shot and reread his short story collection, “Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir,” which I had read and enjoyed when it first came out several years ago. I’m happy to report that it holds up with age.

The physical book itself is a pleasure to hold. This perhaps merits mentioning in the days of the iPad and the Kindle. It’s a small, thin, square book — six or seven inches per per side — with spacious margins, comfortable line spacing, and the titles of the stories running vertically in the margin of right-hand pages so that you always know right where you are. Something about the book makes me want to call it a boutique book. It strikes me as one that wasn’t your average ordinary print run. So +1 for book design.

The writing in “Bluebirds” is easy. I don’t mean that it’s simplistic or lacks depth but rather that it goes down smoothly. It is easy but not necessarily light or lightweight. Or, it is even mostly very light but is light without being lightweight. It’s a hard distinction I’m trying to draw here. It reads, let’s say, like lightweight writing, but there is substance to it. I think this is probably a very hard thing to pull off, and Meno does it very well. It’s clear that he’s going for something similar in The Great Perhaps, but in the novel, the substance isn’t quite there. Where he tries to force the substance in the novel, he makes it seem effortless and exactly right in the stories.

“Bluebirds” is composed of seventeen stories averaging low-double digits each in page length (some a bit longer, some a bit shorter). Most of the stories are told in the first person, and they all seem like explorations of voice or perspective. The curious thing about this, to me, is that there seems to be something approaching uniformity of voice. That is not to say that the same voice tells all the stories, for it surely doesn’t, but even where there are clear sociocultural boundaries that would distinguish one voice or outlook from another in real life, the voices are often similar. It’s almost as if the various stories are being chewed up and retold to us by someone with a knack for turning a nice phrase (which of course they are). Whether this is Meno’s intention or is a lapse I can’t say. I like the voice and the easy way in which it tells the stories, so I’m comfortable with the similarity.

Meno writes about connection and about loneliness. Loss and loneliness and yearning run through all of the stories, and yet he avoids monotony by dreaming up wacky, quirky circumstances around which to drape the sadness (and occasional happiness, moments of real humanity and connection). It is a reflective book but not a melancholy one. I’m reminded very much of Daniel Wallace both for the sometimes fantastical stories and for the light way in which they both address dark subjects.

This is a good book, one that was given to me by a friend and one I’ll recommend to friends. It doesn’t require a significant investment of time to read, and for me, the payoff was phenomenal. It’s the sort of book that makes me want to write short stories. It’s not life-changing, but I’d go so far as to call it day-changing, for it’s a delight almost cover to cover. I’ll leave you with a few quotations that I dog-eared (only the first two are from the same story).

Junior, Carrie, and I went to the Olive Garden on Pulaski. We lounged in the fake Italian setting. We loaded up on bread sticks and free salad. We ate until we couldn’t speak. I thought, Olive Garden! You have saved us with your imitation Italian cooking!

I got this idea that for some reason I should be thankful for my father leaving. If my dad never left, my mom would never have gone crazy, and, well, my brother and I would not be living together and I would never have met Carrie, and this moment with my brother and me standing here like this would definitely never have happened. I was suddenly thankful for all of it, the comings and goings. I thought I would tell my brother about it sometime later when he wanted to talk about it, maybe, and I started to hope that this moment, this one here, would be the one we looked back on. It was too soon to tell, I guess, and we settled for standing there for a moment, watching the whole world take off and land.

There are some things that might make me angry, some things that are very wrong, and some things that are only for me — things that are very beautiful, full of beauty, like the old pistol and the tiger tattoo and the girl with the wig lit up by the sun. They are moments I refuse to share. They are moments I have never told anyone.

When I came back to the couch, Margaret was trembling. In the soft crook of her elbow, her pulse was beating like a hidden rabbit.

Birdie McCoy is a girl I make cry in third grade. When I do it, I doom myself forever. In the woods behind the elementary school, blue bows in her brown hair, her face red from a race, she is given a yellow ribbon for winning. I say, out of breath, “Who’s going to marry an ugly girl like you?” and she begins to cry quietly, for being faster than me, smarter, so small, so pretty. As she cups her hands over her eyes, I fall in love for the first time. Many years later I realize it is there, that moment, that dooms me forever. I fall in love with a woman as soon as she begins crying, which always, always occurs at the end of everything.

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The Great Perhaps

This is off-topic for the current group read, but as this is kind of my literature blog, the post goes here.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a short story collection entitled Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, by Joe Meno. I haven’t read it in years, and — who knows? — my opinion of it may be different were I to read it again, but I do remember really liking it. The stories were short, little vignettes of what I remember as whimsical people telling sometimes folksy, sometimes improbable stories. The stories were simple and easy but engaging. Delightful is what they were. The book was a real delight to read. Ever since, I’ve had it in the back of my mind to read more by this guy. His books haven’t been at the top of my must-read pile, but a couple of them have been on my amazon wish list. For my birthday, I finally got one of them, his most recent, The Great Perhaps.

I suppose my expectations were high.

The first line certainly drew me in: “Anything resembling a cloud will cause Jonathan Casper to faint.”  Clouds of varying types (by which I mean not merely cumulus and cumulonimbus but supernatural and nuclear and inkish and rhinosceric) figure prominently in the book but wind up being, for me, an unsatisfactory and in fact a downright forced conceit. Meno tries to use clouds as a vector for making a point about complexity vs. simplicity, a dichotomy he he also touches on with references to evolution and a strange psychoanalysis of Casper’s fainting, seizing spells.

The story puts us in the midst of a family breaking apart. Jonathan Casper and his wife Madeleine are undergoing a second separation and career crises while their teenage daughters confront angst, in the case of the older, and a desire for fulfillment through a misplaced and overzealous religion, in the case of the younger. Everyone in the novel is searching for something, and no one seems to be anywhere near finding it. Naturally, by the end, they’ve found it, and it all ties back in neatly to the notion that oversimplification breeds unhappiness, that complexity is beautiful.

Although they all show development from the beginning of the story to the end, the main characters are all very flat. The obsessed scientist. The woman juggling a career and domestic life and being particularly successful at neither. The rebelling, asshole child. The child interested in nothing but religion. It seems to me not to be enough to show development of flat characters into slightly rounder, or at least more fulfilled, characters. Meno concludes that complexity is beautiful, but he declines to imbue his characters with any complexity. There’s very little satisfaction to be had here.

The book insists upon a few things that seem bizarrely naive or off key. For example, Jonathan Casper studies squid and nurses a hope of finding in their genetic makeup something to help him discover “a unified idea about why the world is the way it is, and where, as human beings, we truly come from.” This seems a stretch, but then Meno goes on: “In his search for the prehistoric squid, Jonathan is looking for a single, uncomplicated answer to the mystery of human life: there must be one somewhere, he is sure of it” (21). This strikes me as a feeble attempt to unify the strands of a story that, like the mystery of human life, may simply defy tidy unification. There are several such things in the book. They feel like feints, almost. They feel contrived.

Contrivance turns out to be the book’s primary flaw, I think. Fiction is naturally contrived. It’s the throwing together of characters and situations whose intersection makes a neat story. In the best fiction, however improbable the intersections or the situations (take wheelchair assassins descending upon a tennis academy, for example), it all feels somehow merited or forgivable or even wonderfully inventive. The Great Perhaps feels to me like something that began as a neat enough idea but whose central conceit required more buttressing than was optimal, done at last with weaker struts than were needed. It feels, in a way, like some of my own efforts at writing fiction, in which something fundamental collapses out from under me and I scramble to jam something in its place. It’s not half-heartedly exactly. It’s more as if whole-heartedly (over-heartedly?) but in service of something that simply needed rethinking altogether.

Meno does some interesting things formally in the book. Sections about Madeleine Casper are often in something like numbered list form. And Jonathan’s father — who appears in some of the best writing of the book, I think — writes one-liner letters to himself that are sprinkled throughout the text; these I found quite lovely.

The Great Perhaps concerns itself at least obliquely with war, and its most interesting sections, from the childhood of Jonathan’s father, take place in the very middle of the war. Meno mentions terrorism and war in the modern context (the action of the book takes place at the time of the Bush/Kerry election) and even makes what I imagine seemed to him like a dramatic reveal pertaining to that most horrific cloud of all — the mushroom — and yet he never really ties it all together. Had he done more with that complex, conflicted father and his experience of the war, I think Meno might have had a great book. As it turned out, I get the feeling he started with the central image of the mushroom cloud and worked backward to build up a weak set of stories to support a cloud motif that was more contrived than beautiful.

All in all, it’s inadequate. Not bad exactly, but inadequate. I like Meno’s writing, and this book doesn’t turn me off to reading his other books, but it did disappoint me in some of the ways that writers like Powers and T.C. Boyle — though considered good, serious writers — sometimes disappoint. I suppose there’s worse company for Meno to keep.

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