The title story in Robert Power’s 2014 collection (Transit Lounge) took out second place in The Age short story award in 2011. The tale spotlights both the gullibility and the callousness of a young man visiting the Big Apple. What better place than New York to purchase dried onion rings masquerading as weed and to pose as a blind guy as a pickup ruse, only to let it all loose with barely a flicker of guilt after Budweiser and Wild Turkey work their magic. It’s a sad tale in a jaded sort of way but also quite funny. The hallway in the apartment in which Frank dosses is piled high with newspapers, ‘A bit like the trenches in the First World War, but drier’ (25) and the mattress sports ‘cigarette burns that look like bullet holes’ leading Frank to picture it as an execution backdrop (26).
Firenze & Snowball is a bittersweet tale of the lure of alternative lives available in online worlds. In this case, the online world is ‘Alterlife’ which is, as far as I can ascertain, a fictional account of ‘Second Life’. Some years ago, I did an anthropological study of ‘Second Life’ and can attest to its ability to provide a completely believable alternative universe (in which one can easily and subconsciously replicate unwanted traits and experiences).
In the case of Power’s story, Snowball (so called because ‘he’s so white on account of being indoors so much with his head in a computer’ (14)) scores a gig for his ‘songwriter Goth’ best friend. Circumstances cascade until the fictional singer/songwriter ‘Firenze’ hits the big time. It is a story about money and what it can and cannot buy, and it has something profound to say about friendship and happiness.
In ‘She calls her boy Amazing’, Ny is a young Vietnamese boy adored by his mother despite a ghastly conception at the hands of bedraggled and filthy men with ‘sea-madness in their faces, deep scars on their souls’ (38)’. When Ny finds himself motherless, Old Man Luc becomes his guardian and mentor. Luc eventually arranges for Ny to go to school in Ho Chi Minh City. ‘And then, who knows how wide your wings will spread, how far you will fly?’ (45). Luc assures his young charge, who has never stopped hoping for his mother’s return, that he will watch out for her every night. ‘I will go to the platform and tell her of your progress and she will smile and be at peace’ (45).
I will be in Vietnam next month and will quite possibly scour the railroad platform in Danang looking for an ‘Old Man Luc’ to sell me a bouquet of flowers and I will think of a little boy like Ny far away at school.
‘The Visit’ showcases an unusual playing with the narrative mode so that the narrator speaks of his mother thus: ‘Once, though it feels like an age away now, she was tall and strong and as sharp as a pin’ and then switches (within the same paragraph) to ‘How I loved being with you then’ (48-49). This she/you switch is clever and seems to complement the flow of the narrative beautifully. Power’s word choices and sentence structures throughout ‘The Visit’ indicate an unhurried and well-edited manner of working.
I sit opposite the woman who is my mother. Her hair, long whitened by the twist of her mind, is now yellowed by surrender.’ (47)
‘The I Zingari Cap’, ‘Zorro the Chess Master’ and ‘Synge’s Chair’ all touch on father/son relationships and the circle of life, and ‘The Shoe Lovers’ is delightfully clever with the twist it hints at in the opening paragraph and the altogether unexpected one that is delivered on the closing page.
‘Grooming’ is more of a plot-driven piece (where most of the other stories seemed to explore character to a greater extent) and the plot is just a little too contrived. Conversely, ‘Buffalo Bill and the Psychiatrist’, while obscure, is both darkly funny and maddeningly thought-provoking.
One of my favourite shorts in this collection is ‘The Postman Gets a Letter’. The Postman is a beautifully realised character who has tried to make life easier for his depressed wife by finding her a caravan by the sea where she can nurture her wounded soul. At the same time and in the absence of romance, excitement and/or children, he has channelled his energies into the all-consuming hobby of chronicling the history of the country town in which he lives.
The Postman’s wife reveals her unhappiness – and eventually the secret she has kept from him – by way of a letter she writes from ‘down on the tip of Port Phillip Bay’ (174) with ‘the waves heaving back and forth, oblivious forever to the fears and joys of those passing by’ (165-166). Her demons are stronger than their love, she writes to her husband. When she tells him of the back story she has invented of a ‘tall, handsome, teenage son’ (169), it’s time for the tissue box. This mythical son has a name and a sense of humour, and she has a reserve of created ‘memories’. It is, indeed, heartbreaking.
The Postman has a secret of his own and it is amusing to wonder about the impact of his secret on the lives of so many people. There could be another set of stories in that.
This collection was produced with the assistance of the Australia Council for the Arts. It’s engaging short fiction and I’m sure I’ll be dipping back into it from time to time.
My thanks to Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers where this review is cross-posted.
Power, Robert. Meatloaf in Manhattan, Transit Lounge, Melbourne. 2014.