BOOK REVIEW by DUFF BRENNA
Walter Cummins has published more than one hundred short stories in venues such as Kansas Quarterly, Virginia Quarterly Review, Confrontation and many, many other journals and magazines. His fourth collection of stories, The End of the Circle, takes place on the run, so to speak, in various places like America and London and Venice and Leiden, the Swiss Alps and Paris and other locations in Europe.
“Oxfords” dips into the lives of Stuart and Winnie and baby Tink; Elaine and Henry and baby Joy. Stuart and Winnie live in Oxford, a tiny farm town in America. They are prosperous and have a very comfortable home. Stuart has a large library that Henry envies. Both Stuart and Henry work at a nearby university, but Stuart is not a teacher. He’s a renowned scholar. A renowned scholar doesn’t need to teach; he does renowned scholar stuff. These contrasting personalities, especially Stuart and Henry, find very little in common. Their wives have babies, Tink and Joy, to help them connect, but Elaine and Winnie would never have formed a friendship otherwise. It’s what the story is about ultimately—connections, how vague and formless and happenstance they are, even those connections between parents and children. This unlikely foursome never really coalesces. The men are awkward together, having only Stuart’s work to talk about (because he wants to talk, not listen), work which Henry finds only mildly interesting. What Henry notices more than anything other than the renowned scholar’s library is that Stuart can’t stand his son Tink, seems to hate him, actually. We find out the boy was an “accident.”
One day Henry and Stuart are talking and the thread of the conversation leads Henry to think that Stuart is going to explain his aversion to Tink. But instead of an explanation, Stuart wants to discuss Tristram Shandy, and Henry, trying to follow Stuart’s elaborate thesis, ends up “uncertain whether he was in the presence of genius or a bizarre form of madness.” The upshot of Stuart’s problem with his son? He’s a noisy kid, a distraction. A magnificent mind needs quiet in order to work well. Stuart can’t have a screamer around the house. Too disturbing. Too bothersome. Ultimately, scholarship wins and Stuart leaves Winnie and Tink.
Later, after tragedy strikes Henry and Elaine, the story shifts 20 years into the future and a coincidental meeting in England. A grant has taken Henry to Oxford University. He runs into Stuart who is there doing research. But there’s a large problem for the renowned scholar who needs quiet. His son Tink is there too. Tink is searching for his daddy, who vehemently does not want to be found.
The second story in the collection, “Baggage,” might have been called “The Irritable Traveler.” Or maybe “The Rotten No Good Bastard.” His name is Howard. He’s on a train going from France to Italy. He’s packed into a compartment with five other people of various nationalities. They’re all kind to each other, affable, accommodating; all that is except Howard who decides (capriciously) that he doesn’t like any of his fellow passengers and will not speak for the entire trip no matter what language they use to communicate with him. An old woman in the compartment drops her passport accidently. Howard knows where it is, but he won’t tell her. Let her fret. To hell with her. The passport is found by one of the other passengers and given back to the fretful woman. But Howard’s baggage is on a rack over her head. He sees it is going to fall on her if he doesn’t do something. It is a moment wherein Howard can redeem himself and also spare the old lady from serious harm. Do it, Howard. Come on, man move. You could call this one a cliff-hanger to the last page.
“The Happy Frenchmen” is a story about funny doings. Man. Woman. Love affairs. Let’s get away from it all, darling, away from your wife, away from our colleagues who might rat us out. Let’s go to Italy and call the trip our honeymoon. Sex, good food, wine. And sex and sex, yes lots and lots. Grand idea. Except fate steps in and the couple suddenly have to deal with the man’s dislocated sacroiliac. Sex? What man can have sex when he can hardly get out of bed or dress himself or move other than in a crimped crab sort of way? He’ll find things he doesn’t want to know about his new lover. She’ll be enlightened as well. And there’s that pesky wife waiting back in the States. This story isn’t a belly laugh, but it’s full of irony and knowing chuckles and wise insights into the nature of “lovers” like these two. “Awful Advice,” “Poaching,” and “The End of the Circle” come at the same theme of illicit love in various ways. All three narratives are little gems and perhaps the most haunting stories in the book.
Other treasures include “Stef,” “What Eamon Did,” “The Beauties of Paris,” and “Missing Venice.” Stef shows us a father visiting his estranged daughter in London. She has a new baby and she’s not married. Her flat is a rundown disgrace. The father has married a younger woman and he doesn’t want to tell her about Stef, but he also wants somehow to connect with his daughter. He is clumsy and awkward. He tells Stef that her baby looks well-behaved. Rapidly, caustically Stef says, “You’ve only seen her for ten seconds.” He asks if the baby gives her problems. With obvious annoyance Stef replies, “She’s a baby, isn’t she.” Then this telling exchange:
“I only meant that some are easier than others.”
“So are some parents.”
And therein hangs a tale of parents and children and everyone going their own way, cutting themselves off from their blood ties and finding how impossible it is to backtrack or start a relationship over. Too many mistakes, heartaches, failures, lapses in caring that turn things so sour nothing can sweeten even an hour when you haven’t been around for years, Daddy. But surprisingly this story concludes on an encouraging note, an ending suggestive of the hopeful possibilities it uncovers.
Carter in “What Eamon Did” is a loner. He saves just enough money at teaching each year to set out for the countryside, living in the woods sometimes, or renting a room when the weather turns bad and he has to. When he stops at a pub for a drink one day some musicians show up to entertain the patrons. One musician who plays a pipe aggressively taunts a man in the audience named Eamon. There is obviously bad blood between them. Carter wants to know what in the world the problem between the two men is. He tries in various ways to find out. By the end of the evening the piper has provoked a fight, not with Eamon, but with Eamon’s overwrought wife. A fight because of something Eamon did, “some crime or sin or stupid error.” Carter knows that the people in town won’t ever let the man forget, not for as long as he lives.
In “The Beauties of Paris” we have another father estranged from his daughter. Her name is Ariel. She has nursed her mother through to a painful death and it is obvious that she, Ariel, is still deeply grieving and angry and emotionally exhausted. The father wants to distract her from her grief by showing her the beauties of Paris. Like the father in “Stef,” he also wants to connect. In an odd way a tentative connection happens when he gets them both lost at night in the middle of a Parisian riot.
“Missing Venice” has David and his son Donny on a train to Venice. David is divorced from Donny’s mother. The fourteen-year-old brat has been making trouble for her. She has remarried and is having another baby and she wants Donny out of her hair, so she guilts David into taking his son on a trip that was originally planned for David and his new wife Virginia.
David and sullen, pissed off Donny meet Maria, a homely woman who doesn’t know when to shut up. She barrages the father and son with her knowledge about Italy and the places the train is passing through. When the three of them reach Venice they can’t find a place to stay, so they end up searching for lodging, wandering the city at night with their cumbersome luggage. It’s very late and very dark and Maria is in an alley crying, David trying to comfort her, Donny standing by angry and bitter at the whole stupid world. When two women and a man they had seen earlier show up and start beating David and Maria, “This is death,” David believes. The sensation of “an absolute emptiness” shudders through him. But finally Donny has somewhere to put his anger. And he does. The result creates one of the most satisfying endings in the entire book.
All of the stories in this latest Cummins’ collection tell us how difficult it is for human beings to really know one another—to really connect—and how unpredictable our futures are. With subtle symbols (trains, unknown streets, crumbling towers to nowhere, dark alleys, claustrophobic hotel rooms) and character insights that only the finest writers have at their command, Cummins reveals another fact over and over: nothing turns out the way you think it will, so don’t create scenarios for your tomorrows. Don’t make inflexible plans, dear traveler—unless you want to hear God laugh.
Duff Brenna is the author of the novels Too Cool (a New York Times Notable Book), The Altar of the Body, and The Book of Mamie (an AWP Best Novel selection).