145 pages, $15.00
Review by Denton Loving
Vanessa Blakeslee writes across genres, and her first collection of short stories, Train Shots, reflects how widely she has been published (credits within Train Shots alone include The Southern Review, Madison Review and Harpur Palate among others). These stories illustrate Blakeslee’s ability to inhabit the minds and voices of wildly different narrators and characters, though their common denominator is in the search for a safe place to belong.
Opening the collection is “Clock In,” a first-person point-of-view story written in direct address that immediately pulls the reader in as a new server at a restaurant. “First we’ll clock you in on the computer and then you can shadow me,” the story starts, and then the narrator proceeds to give “you” the entire scoop on the restaurant’s other employees. Blakeslee’s talents are truly highlighted in this story, expertly revealing a set of quirky characters in a remarkably short three pages.
Blakeslee’s craft is more subtle in other stories, even though her ambition pokes through again and again in beautiful sentences and her unique insight. In “Ask Jesus,” a man faces a cheating wife. In “Barbecue Rabbit,” a woman is challenged by a destructive, abusive, out-of-control son. In “Hospice of the Au Pair,” a doctor entertains the notion of a “home abortion” against his mistress’s will.
One of the strongest stories is “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” where an ex-patriot lives in Costa Rica and establishes a private shelter for strays. When thieves destroy her kennel and steal her dogs, the narrator is pushed to a moment of deep crisis. She is not only caught between countries; she is caught between lives, unable to decide if she should stay in Costa Rica and continue saving dogs or go to her dying ex-husband in Florida. A third option is to move to Nicaragua where her step-son has used his inheritance to buy nine-hundred acres of wilderness. “There’s still a sense of adventure here,” he tells his stepmother about Nicaragua, but the reality is much less the Wild West that he refers to and much more the deprivations of a third-world nation. She experiences those deprivations firsthand when she discovers natives on her step-son’s land cutting and stealing trees for firewood. About the two men and their two small boys, she says, “The four of them just stared at me, like strays that show up on the doorstep.” She learns that another couple has eaten their own dog during the winter when there was no other food.
“I would go home, but where was home?” the narrator asks. “I scanned the stars until my neck hurt, not only for my lost dogs, but for this lost world.”
Who are the strays, she eventually is forced to ask? Where do any of us belong is this big world?
The other question that preoccupies Blakeslee’s mind is how to recognize and accept love. In “The Lung,” a man with one lung must choose between the woman he loves and his continued love of smoking. “I want evidence that you believe in the value of your life,” his lover tells him. The narrator says:
“This argument isn’t even about me smoking or having one lung. This is about two people defining what love is going to mean between just them. This is laying a foundation for a brick house rather than plodding along and tossing up some shack of twigs and straw, which is what most people settle for instead.”
The stories in Train Shots will cause readers to ask these same questions of their own lives. We all may be surprised to discover that what we settle for is often astounding when we pause long enough to examine it.
Denton Loving lives near the historic Cumberland Gap, where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia converge. He serves as executive editor of drafthorse: the literary journal of work and no work. His writing has appeared in Cosmos, Literal Latte, Main Street Rag and in numerous anthologies. Follow him on twitter @DentonLoving.