Little Reef And Other Stories
There's a reason Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Besides being a superlative writer, she also has produced a body of work that does homage to the slow-and-steady in an age where the whirligig of time threatens to spin off its axis. For years, she collected rejection letters from editors who didn't see why anyone would want to read the meditations of a housewife. Today, she is regarded as a master who embodies the spirit of Ghandi's maxim, "There's more to life than increasing its speed." In his debut collection of stories, "Little Reef" (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), Michael Carroll appears to be writing in a similar vein to Munro, eschewing high-octane drama and underscoring moments where characters take stock of their lives at a crossroads.
Scott, the main character of many of the stories in "Little Reef," frequently refers to himself as a housewife or hausfrau, tending to the affairs (both household and extra-marital) of his husband Perry, a hugely successful novelist. The reader would be forgiven for surmising that this collection's stories are autobiographical in nature, as a quick Google search will reveal that Edmund White, to whom the book is dedicated, is Carroll's husband and, like Perry, White has received warehouses full of international writing awards and he's also struggled with obesity since the sixties and HIV since the eighties. White has also maintained open relationships with his partners, and endured a series of strokes in recent years. We also know that Carroll and White lived in Paris together, as did Carroll's characters Scott and Perry, and it was there that it really hit home for both White and his fictional doppelganger that he isn't going to live forever: "He was losing his life... in dribs and drabs. A lot of his Paris friends (who were older, admittedly) had died. People were asking him if he'd finished the novel he was writing [and if] he thought he'd ever write another."
Throughout the book, Scott rhapsodizes on having been Perry's amanuensis. Perry had opened up whole vistas of experience to Scott when Scott was just a sprout out of Jacksonville. The book's namesake is a region in Florida that is as underrepresented in literature as Munro's Ontario, and Carroll devotes a good deal of his book to exploring its sunbaked drear and marginalization of gays. Even when Carroll depicts New York's gay scene, he is more enthralled by the faint whispers in his characters' hearts than by all its babble and club cacophony.
While the book's interiority is an admirable departure from the superficiality of so much contemporary gay lit, it moves far too slowly and is far too redundant from one story to the next. Frankly, the first story, "From the Desk of...Hunter B. Gwathmey," is a weak start, unworthy of Carroll's talent. The teenage narrator makes frequent reference to how he's in the gifted program at his school and how he's such a great writer, but the story itself isn't well-written and he doesn't show us samples of his work, which he keeps saying everyone -- including the biggest writer in town -- is so gaga about.
The stories tend to plod and slog as we learn the same things over and over again about Scott: He's from Florida and Tennessee; he was in the gifted program; his longtime companion, now-husband is a famous writer. In "First Responders," we get the full transcript of Scott's brother Jeff's litany of complaints about his ex-wife, and it'll make you beg to see the redacted version instead. "Admissions" is a heartrending account of Scott watching his much older husband deteriorate after so many strokes and bouts with disease, yet even here Carroll plunges us too much into the tedium of the long-term hospital stay instead of just giving us a sufficient taste of it and moving on with the story.
However, the last three stories -- "Lack," "Avenging Angel," "Unsticking" -- are solid accounts of a newly middle-age man contemplating the passing of time as he witnesses younger people striding into their springtime and his older friends and relations staggering either into the autumn of their years or into the grave. "Little Reef" is worth picking up for these three stories alone. The writing is purposeful and nuanced. The stories preceding these, however, are many-times their optimal length and could benefit from either further editing or complete omission.
"Little Reef and Other Stories"
by Michael Carroll
Publication Date: June 16, 2014
ISBN (cloth): 978-0-299-29740-4
ISBN (e-book): 978-0-299-29743-5
Terrace Books, Univeristy of Wisconsin Press