REVIEWED BY A.E. WEISGERBER
Rattle of Want | Gay Degani | Pure Slush Books | November 2015 | ISBN 978-1-925101-67-6
A great collection to keep near your travel bag.
This is a collection that’s really full, very rich, and I enjoyed every story in Rattle of Want for different reasons. Gay Degani’s fiction teases up big insights from life’s little messes, so it is thrilling to lasso this wild child of a collection into a single review. Degani’s themes are timeless and truthful, and in addition to 46 works of flash there is a novella, The Old Road, which caps the collection with suspense.
The title includes one of those old words that carries many different meanings, so perfect for compressed fiction. To rattle is to make quick sharp noises, as these small stories do. It also means a sound made in the throat, especially from one near death. It reminds me of an article I read years ago in the Guardian, where a nurse, a palliative caregiver named Ware, shared an essay listing common regrets expressed by the dying. The list includes being true to oneself; not working so hard; being happy.
Degani is a master storyteller with a firm understanding of these universally important wants, and her stories wisely tally net costs of failing to take care of numero uno.
In “Monsoon,” a favorite story in this collection, a wife sees her husband dance seductively with another woman, and is embarrassed by it (“why in front of all these people?”). She remains in distracted denial until he says, point blank: “I’m leaving the marriage.”
My skin loosens as if a thread has been pulled. The frayed tatters that have held me together, give way. I slip from the bed to the floor, my spine jarred as it hits the linoleum. “What?”
“I don’t want to be married anymore.”
I gulp air. Stare at his feet. One of his Nikes is untied. The soles of his shoes, the shoestring, are all black with mud. “Don’t—what?”
This suspenseful tale punctuates the end of a marriage with a frantic death scene of helicopters and confusion.
In “Something about LA,” however, the wife has no problem at all escaping the marriage, even gaining a child by doing so. Woman and boy become runaways out to change life for the better. The subtext of chance fueling opportunity provides such a punchy motif here. Favorite line: “Suddenly I feel lost, seeing what it’s like to belong.” I was right there with this narrator, always looking for an excuse to go to L.A.
Degani’s stories also focus on communities. In more than one story she hints at the importance of eyeing strangers warily. Like Mr. Flood in “Small Town” who leaves everything behind in Boston “to live in a big stone house next to a cornfield in Iowa.” Next thing you know, a pretty young girl might go missing. Or a jogger the narrator sees peering into the window of a young mother’s cottage in “The Old Road.” He just might have a special room in mind for her.
Degani’s deck of suspense shuffles in domestic fables as well, where uncannily good things happen. For instance, in “Landscape,” an overlooked wife decides one morning to “turn left at the corner of Montana” when out on her morning run, and first experiences a small piece of the world, then her whole life, in a new way that puts her husband second.
In “Appendages,” a limbless man aborts his own suicide attempt at age 10, because his heart told him he must live. His story is juxtaposed with that of the DeLorean gulf-winged sports car, and the flocks of parrots in Pasadena. “Appendages” is a wonderful story that blends science and wonder, art and parrots. Desperation and escape, Degani seems to say, can be necessary mulch and compost for unknown blooms of happiness.
Degani’s powerful verbs drive this collection. In “Small Town,” the word sauntered becomes a point of contention in an eyewitness account. I loved it when she made squirrels “scrabble” or “cheeter” at just the right moments. I especially liked, in “Starkville,” how the narrator’s “black bra lay spidered on the sidewalk for all the neighborhood to see.” Spidered?! Perfect.
I also admire Degani’s steps toward historical fiction in this collection, and I hope she homesteads that territory in future volumes. When an author writes: “like good pilgrims, we mark our progress” or, in “Heaven Spoils,” “Father dies, then Danny dies. Maybe the pox, we don’t know for sure. No neighbors on our lonely road. No doctor for a hundred miles. Water and sludge make digging graves impossible” it seems her imagination is flirting with the 1800s.
Degani blogs at Words in Place, and is a masterful writer who develops many-layered characters who, despite the narrow confines of word counts, have back-stories and quirks and arcs that are very true to life. This book is a study in flash-craft, and with its beautiful works at all lengths, makes for a great travelling companion.
Anne E. Weisgerber has recent stories published or forthcoming in New South, The Airgonaut, Tahoma Literary Review, Vignette Review, and Jellyfish Review. She is a freelance fiction editor, and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions 2016. When not teaching, she’s working on a novel that spans five generations, or hanging out with the #fishtankwriters. Follow her @AEWeisgerber, or visit anneweisgerber.com.