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1,865 words
SHJ Issue 17
Fall 2017

The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot
by Jack Driscoll [short stories]

Reviewed by Duff Brenna

Wayne State Univ.

Cover of The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot, by Jack Driscoll

The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot, ten stories comprising Jack Driscoll’s eleventh book, provide all the proof any judge of the finest of fine literature would ever need in order to place Driscoll near the top of what America has to offer in the way of supremely gifted writers. As he has shown in works such as Wanting Only to be Heard, The World of a Few Minutes Ago, How Like an Angel, and many other novels, stories, and poems, Driscoll is something of a savant when it comes to anatomizing men, women, and children in their interactions with themselves and one another—mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, siblings of either sex—all in their individual ways functional and dysfunctional. Which begs the question: is every family to some degree dysfunctional? Driscoll’s stories have their own way of providing some answers:

In the first story, Wayne, our first-person narrator, tells us that some years ago, when he was only 14, his best friend’s mother (Mrs. LaVann) “went renegade,” meaning that she, a secretive, mysterious woman, left her family and disappeared. Weeks later, she phoned her husband, telling him she would come back, but “she never did.”

Now 42 and looking back on his life, Wayne recreates events of a time when he spent several days with the LaVanns at their cabin built along the shore of “Moon Lake” in the Michigan woods. He slept alone in the loft, and early one morning he heard “low-grade whimpers and moans,” which he “had anticipated but still hadn’t grown accustomed to.” Looking out the window at the “shimmery pewter-colored surface” of the lake, he heard the screen door opening. A naked Mrs. LaVann appeared below him. She went to the outdoor pump and washed between her legs. When she was finished, he went outside and gazed at her as she wrapped a towel around herself and looked back at him, “not at all startled or surprised.” A short conversation ensued in which he said he was on his way to the boat to go fishing. She tells him later that maybe one morning she would go out early and swim behind the boat while he rowed over the water. She says it would be something to break the monotony. “Something different to look forward to.” Wayne begins to have semi-innocent fantasies about her. Her sensual beauty frightens him, but also draws him onward. When the long-awaited union of Mrs. LaVann and Wayne finally takes place, it’s in a way that few readers might anticipate. It happens when Wayne symbolically becomes a fisherman “trolling” for her as she swims behind him, while “millions and millions of stars lightyears away” look down on the two of them. It’s during this suggestive scene that we learn the reason for the title of the story:

“Look, Wayne,” Mrs. LaVann said. “There’s the Goat Fish.“ And then she pointed above the lake’s south end and said, “And there’s the Double Ship,” as if the sky were a sea, and we were mariners charting a course to who knows where. “There.... The Lover’s Knot.... The Dragon’s Tail.”

The inchoate yet irrepressible longing for love, the pain of lost loved ones, the cruelty and grief and beauty and splendor of life itself generate thematic patterns that knit Driscoll’s stories together, ultimately creating an ode to the manic/depressive nature of human hopes and fears—one minute on top of the world, the next minute in the depths of despair and haunted by something we’ve done, or something we contemplate doing, or something that was done to us, as in “The Alchemist’s Apprentice,” wherein a widow longing for love, or at least companionship, makes absurd and even dangerous choices concerning the men she brings home to fill her needs. The story is told from her son Rollo’s point of view. Rollo is ready to hate or adore each man who becomes his mother’s lover, depending on how they treat her and how they treat him.

At the opening point of the story, he has made a hero of a good-humored criminal (“handsome as Han Solo”) named Jimmy Creedy, who enlists Rollo’s services in helping to unload and store stolen goods in a shed beside the house. Periodically, Jimmy repacks his van and peddles whatever he’s heisted and returns talking of silver and “untraceable angels and mermaids and dog bones and bells...rubies on mud-flaps. Goddamn stardust instead of brake lights.”

The boy considers the man a godsend, especially given that Rollo’s mother had half her face disfigured in a fire not long before Jimmy came into her life. She still has a body that can make any man breathless, but most of her face is hidden behind a mask of cascading hair. The boy is gratified that Jimmy isn’t bothered by her ruined face and, in fact, “He kisses her there like she’s still pretty, like this is her most gorgeous feature.” The story flashes back to how Rollo’s mom was accidently torched by a former lover, a man the boy calls “whacko...he’s deep-down mean-minded right to the core. Don’t you trust him, not one iota.” Being so needy, she doesn’t listen to her son and pays for it when her lover fashions a flame-thrower and begins to burn down the trees surrounding the house. The flames from the thrower sweep over the mother’s face when she tries to stop him.

After the “whacko” is gone and her face has healed enough to get a job as a dispatcher for truckers, she sees a plastic surgeon who says he can fix her, but when he quotes a dollar figure for the operation, she knows she’ll never be able to afford it. And then as if by miracle, Jimmy shows up and seems to adore her and it looks like everything will be all right. The joy of love itself is known to be a great healer, but the story doesn’t end there.

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake tells us: “Without Contraries is no Progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” Not that Blake’s work had anything to do with Driscoll’s collection, but one could do worse than see Blake’s Proverbs as inspiration for a series of stories that seem to find their way forward by sketching out, then unloading through the use of character studies the dual nature of what it means to be human.

“Land of the Lost and Found” gives us a pair of lovers who are also a pair of losers who can’t seem to get anything right and end up homeless, so far down on their luck that they make their car their home, until one day they find an abandoned house and break into it. They only want a roof over their heads, but what they find inside the house is akin to winning the lottery. Broke today, flush tomorrow.

“All the Time in the World” describes a baseball player who long ago threw strikes that crossed the plate at around one hundred miles an hour. No more, no more. He lost his pitching arm in an accident and also lost his wife. But he handles it all well enough to keep his spirits up, even though he has a daughter named Samantha who is full of attitude. She’s young and perpetually angry; she drinks, does drugs, and is on probation for theft and alcohol. Everywhere she looks she sees that life is a downer. Except maybe Nature isn’t, not all the time anyway. Out one winter night with a girlfriend, the two of them are in a car parked off-road near a “no name lovers’ lane.” While the girls watch snow falling, Samantha has an epiphany: “We are beautiful, is what I think, travelers momentarily stranded inside the closed-off borderlands beyond which lie our future lives.” The car becomes a catamaran and the road a river. Life ahead seems to hold out the hope of something wonderful waiting if they can just live long enough to get there.

Perhaps nowhere in the collection is there a better illustration of “contraries” than in the story entitled “On This Day You Are All Your Ages.” The story introduces us to “Marjorie Breitweiser, a casualty of late-stage divorce and addiction to loneliness.” Her mind slips back and forth taking us through various stages of her life: “the feisty, quirky kid who, in recollection keeps kissing her own wrist and calls it practice.” The eleven-year-old who “harangues against any elective surgery to correct your severely crossed eyes.” “Miss High and Holy who can’t see past your own stubbornness, a first-class drama queen,” who eventually has the operation that makes her gorgeous. For a while, anyway. Continually taking us backwards and forwards, she describes the age wherein she began experiencing the allure of those “wild and wayward shaggy-headed creatures of excess needs and desires.” She chooses one to test her urges, finds him wanting, and breaks it off. He goes from boring to surly, unleashing “the cruelest litany of epithets and taunts you’ve so far endured.” Why couldn’t she see him for what he was? She’s too young, but she’s learning and for a moment divines “the godforsaken future of both our lives.” She grows up, flees into a world that is suddenly changing shape all around her. Her neighbor, a healthy, elderly man who is always working in his yard has a stroke and ends up housebound and riding a wheelchair. She anticipates his future, seeing him in a nursing home staring out the window at a parking lot and knowing “there is no possible way by then to circle back and begin again.”

We find her decades later getting a divorce from a man who has fallen in love with “another man.” She realizes there is no way to predict the antithetic nature of her life. She’s old, she’s young, she’s in-between. The seasons change “just like that”—spring, summer, fall, winter. She’s a child in a costume that turns her into Joan of Arc, a young martyr in the year 1431 telling her befuddled neighbor, “Yet must I go and must I do this thing.” Then she’s older again and recalling the missing men she’s dated, all of them gone, all of them changed, changed utterly into something they still call my-self. As if climbing down a tunnel, we bottom out with Marjorie being born, being nurtured by a loving mother, learning to walk, toddling off to she knows not where—perhaps the next converse moment of her life?

All of the stories in Driscoll’s magnificent offering are connected by one dominating leitmotif: FAMILY. “Terrible thing, the family,” said the poet Dorianne Laux.1 The idea being that families—yours, mine, all families—are in varying measures defective, limited, unreliable, honest, dishonest, lovable, despicable, trustworthy, traitorous, profane, admirable, dismaying clusters of confusion, havens of hope. Driscoll has caught their puzzling diversity and created unforgettable figures gleaming like uncut diamonds page after consummate page.

Author’s Note:

1. Dorianne Laux. “What’s Terrible” (page 69), Facts About the Moon. Norton, 2006. [W. W. Norton & Company: hardcover first edition 2005; paperback 2007.]

—Previously appears as a guest review in Inside Higher Ed, in John Griswold’s blog “The Education of Oronte Churm” (22 June 2017); republished here by author’s permission

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury