In his solid collection of short stories, They Hover Over Us, the 2011 winner of the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award for fiction,Â Richard Fellinger writes about Pennsylvaniaâ€™s rust belt so vividly that I nodded and winced and smiled all at once, recognizing the telltale clues of the western region of my home state.Â â€œCharcoal-brown buildings in tight rows;â€ politically conservative characters with their rifle bags, drinking from cans of Keystone Light and bottles of Rolling Rock; a town â€œthat might be forgottenâ€ if not for the local college; and, of course, the first cousins who want to wed, and the English professor with the S&M dungeon. Ah, home sweet home.
The themes here are raw and meaningful. Â Fellinger takes bare-knuckled swings at contemporary relationships between men and women, landing solid punches. He deftly zooms in for tighter focus, so that each of the thirteen expertly woven tales expounds on how even the smallest personal choices between couples can have rippling effects. A wife too-long tolerant of an alcoholic husband finally exposes him when he hurts someone else. Â A divorced couple arguing over how to protect a bullied son is a catalyst to a teacherâ€™s important decision.
In â€œFlashbacks,â€ uptight Mona is exasperated during a visit to her husbandâ€™s hometown, where they run into his former girlfriend (â€œno wedding ringâ€) and get asked personal sexual questions by two strippers.Â The droll tone continues in â€œMy Obituaryâ€ where a man resorts to the ultimate lie to get his wife to forgive him for an affair; the flip side of that is â€œHe Never Talked About Youâ€ where dear old Edna tries to stir up some trouble at the viewing for a former lover.
While rows of vacant rust-belt mills hover over Fellingerâ€™s stories, death most certainly lies below. Like the small towns that died in the western part of the United States when Route 66 was deemed irrelevant, so too have towns in western Pennsylvania had to deal with loss â€“ in this case, manufacturing jobs.
In â€œA Completely New Life,â€ Andy is a newspaper publisher intrigued by the criminal history and daily routine of his new female hire from out of state. Fellinger fully fleshes out the analogy:
â€œWhile just south of town was a fancy resort, Bedford Springs, Andy was afraid most out-of-towners consider Bedford a stop on the way to someplace else. Thatâ€™s the townâ€™s history, in fact. The British came during the French and Indian War and built Fort Bedford to use as a staging area in their quest for Fort Duquesne, in what later became downtown Pittsburgh. A century later, after coal was discovered on Broad Top, Bedford was a stop on the railroad line between the mines, foundries and coal fields. Now Bedford was a stop on the turnpike for people driving to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Milepost 146.â€
There are stories in this collection that veer geographically off-course from western Pennsylvania, but Fellingerâ€™s finesse demonstrates his comfort travelling out of the area. â€œThe Night Smoke Finds Religionâ€ starts at Atlantic Cityâ€™s Taj Mahal and thoroughly creates a boxing scene worthy of standing up to any of the Rocky films. â€œNothing Left to Discussâ€ heads to the abandoned coal mine region of northeastern Pennsylvania, where a man is forced to think hard about the difference between his corrupt ex-cop dad and the poor soul trying to steal a circular saw from the garage.
â€œI knew what my dad would have done: He would have taken matters into his own hands, and insisted it was the right thing to do. He probably would have gotten away with it, too, because cops take care of each other that way, especially around here. My dad was a stubborn man, but he wasnâ€™t always right.â€
Even when they think they can stay as stagnant as the small towns they live in, Fellingerâ€™s characters are faced with decisions. Decide right now to buy this book. This is an author who canâ€™t possibly stay stagnant.
DawnÂ D’Aries Zera once won first place in a Valentine’s Day classified adÂ contest for the NY Post, which earned her two tickets to “Beauty and theÂ Beast.” A sample of her poetry currently can be seen on placards in publicÂ transportation throughout Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.