The trouble with interconnected story collections is that they are interconnected.
I know, I know: the first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club. But in this case, it’s not an argumentative fallacy to say that the qualities that make interconnected story collections theoretically interesting can make them disappointing in practice. It has to do with reader response: we come to a short story for a discrete experience – a world we enter and leave in the same sitting. If we recognize a character, a setting, or a matrix of events from a previous story the sense of separateness is lost. And at the same time, we don’t get the total immersion of a novel.
There are arguments in favor of interconnectedness. It can lend thematic and stylistic unity to a collection – a reason why these stories are grouped in this book, beyond the simple fact that the author had 10+ stories and wanted to publish them. Additionally, there’s a joy in piecing together a larger world from its scattered parts. A prominent character in one story reappears as a tertiary character in another, and the way he is interpreted is quite different from the way we’ve see him interpret himself. Maybe his circumstances are even different, and we are left to figure out what happened in between. An event is told and retold and we have to guess which is the accurate version.
But this implies that there is a coherent larger world to be imagined. Picture it as an incomplete skeleton. From a femur, a few vertebrae, a half-broken skull, the reader constructs an animal. But what if the bones aren’t from the same species? One of the things an interconnected story collection does is confine its author to a single style. Variations are allowed within that style, but they must be consistent variations. If the world portrayed in the first story is a realistic one, and if elements of that world reappear in a later story, we expect the same physical laws to obtain. If the world is surreal, then anything goes. But you’d better establish that up front.
Such is the weakness at the heart of Michael Kardos’s otherwise stellar collection, One Last Good Time. This is his first full-length and despite an impressive publication list (Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, The Florida Review) it may be that he doesn’t quite know how to put together a collection. Or maybe an editor thought that the disparate tones of these stories required narrative binding. Whatever the case, I think he would have been better served to let the stories stand alone.
Let’s start with the good. Kardos writes a strong, clean line. These stories practically read themselves. Here’s the first sentence of the title track – one of the strongest in the collection, as you might suspect:
Caught in the ragged rocks of the Breakneck Beach seawall was a dead man whose name had been Vinnie Tucci, whose occupation had been driving a school bus, whose hobbies had included fishing (mackerel in spring, blues in summer, bass till Halloween), and college football (preseason through glorious New Years’ Day), and whose wife Carla had spent the night seated at the kitchen table of their split-level , holding out hope that Vinnie hadn’t done anything stupider than he’d already done, but was instead fucking her sister Amanda’s lights out at a motel in Asbury or Bradley Beach or Sea Girt and would turn up later, rumpled and reeking of woman.
This is a long sentence, 111 words to be exact, probably the longest in the collection. It contains eight commaed-off clauses, as well as references to three characters, five locations, three species of fish, two holidays, and multiple other details essential and scene-setting. The word “whose” – often a sandtrap to smooth writing – pops up three times.
And yet it’s perfectly readable. More than that, it’s immediately gripping. This is not just because of the lurid event it details – a death and an affair within the first 100 words! – nor is it simply because of the mystery it sets up: How has this man died? What is the “stupid” thing he’s already done? And why would his wife prefer he fuck her sister to whatever it is? It also grips us because of the way it takes us from the wide, clinical lens of omniscience into the personal without even a period as transition. “Anything stupider than he’d already done:” this is Carla’s language, and is far less detached than “a dead man whose name had been Vinni Tucci,” or even the slightly more subjective “preseason through glorious New Years’ Day” (the word “glorious” is Vinni’s). With the next clause we are entirely in the mind of a worried wife, who can only too vividly imagine her husband “fucking her [sister’s]…lights out.” The only thing left to speculate is where they are doing it.
Though lurid and built upon a mystery of sorts, this story falls squarely within the realm of capital-R Realism. So do several other stories in this collection – generally the most successful, in my opinion. “Lures of Last Resort,” the collection’s opener, details a father’s abandonment of his family and the son’s subsequent struggle to understand. It is all done against a backdrop of fishing and there are a lot of nice atmospherics – the run-down blue collar quality of the Jersey shore, the smell of fish and the mechanics of tying lures and casting a line. Kardos achieves a nice balance of scene, backstory, and prolepsis (“It’s a story I learned years later, when I was fifteen…”). The “lures” of the title achieve a subtle but decipherable double-meaning and one comes away with a sense of unity, of pleasing form.
The next story marks a radical departure. The title, “Mr Barotta’s Ashes Have the Personality of a Grouchy Old Man,” is surprisingly literal. There are ashes; they do in fact belong to Mr. Barotta; and they do have an ornery personality. Ashes aren’t the only things that talk to the narrator – there is a talking rabbit and an infant who claims to be God. This wouldn’t be a problem if the narrator weren’t the same “Gunnipuddy” (as his last name is pronounced) we saw as a ten-year-old fishing with his father. That he hears voices, and that he writes a series of fables which seem to tell the future, is explained by the most tried-and-true method for splashing surrealism on a realistic canvas: he is crazy, most likely schizophrenic. This is well and good – if ultimately a little disappointing for the same reason that most stories about the insane are disappointing: there is no ground zero; event becomes mere symptom and story becomes case study. But the real issue is that it doesn’t jibe with the first story. The narrator in that story was an adult looking back on his childhood, and there’s nothing to suggest that that adult was of a different age than the narrator of the second story. And yet the first is completely lucid, the second hallucinatory.
A similar tug-of-war extends through the collection. “Two Truths and a Lie” is a mostly realist piece in which Gunnipuddy makes a cameo. There is a slightly over-the-top scene where Gunnipuddy, now a university maintenance man, is conscripted to fight in frat-house boxing tournament. It’s hardly a moment of quiet realism, and yet it’s recognizable as our world. But then there’s “Population 204” – easily the weakest story in the collection, but mercifully brief – where a convenience store clerk regales her coworkers with a Big Fish-like fable of a small southern town where everyone is an acrobat. Sure, she could be lying, but that the story ends with an image of her launching four apples into the air, presumably about to juggle them, implies otherwise. Even if it is a fantastic fiction, the kind of character who would make such a story up probably doesn’t belong in the same collection with out-of-work fishermen. There’s no one moment of complete donnée-violation, and yet the uniting thread is stretched perilously thin. If these bones come from the same animal, it’s a strange creature indeed. Then again, consider the platypus.
All in all, Kardos writes well enough to demand our respect and attention. And to come back to the idea of reader response, we have to remember that this is a first collection. That there are moments of real force makes me excited to see what he does next. His error, after all, is one of overreaching – no doubt common to many of the best writers – which is something that bodes well for future work. Whether it will be a platypus, an ordinary family dog, or whether he will find a way to more effectively mix these impulses, remains to be seen.