At their worst, short stories are a flash in the pan: characters, plots and ideas set on the page and abandoned before they can make a lasting impression. At their best, they make the most of moments and details to tell stories with an immediacy and economy novels rarely match.
The stories in Kevin Clouther’s debut collection We Were Flying to Chicago, thankfully, fall into the latter category. They don’t tower above their contemporaries or play with the conventions of the form—they don’t have to—but they are thoughtful and elegant, and display the short story’s strengths.
In “Charleston for Breakfast,” a young security guard quits his job and drives to his girlfriend’s house. Not knowing what else to do, he decides to drive her up a mountain to watch the sunrise, only to drive up a mountain with a lesser view, or, as he calls it, “the wrong mountain.” His view of the deer by his former workplace—“it killed me thinking those deer could prance all over town, that they could get up and go anywhere, while I was stuck in a plastic chair, clicking an orange flashlight”—give a sense of his restlessness, while other details show his awe for his more intelligent girlfriend.
The stories in this collection use a variety of timespans and voices, though its themes—faith and the lack thereof, growing older, feeling trapped—keep it from being scattershot. The narrator of “On the Highway Near Fairfield, Connecticut” reflects on his girlfriend and lapsed Catholicism while driving with a cousin, also a lapsed Catholic (they appear throughout this collection). In “The Third Prophet of Wyaconda,” the people of a small Iowa town struggle to respond to a self-proclaimed prophet and his prediction of a miracle.
When Chicago’s stories touch on faith, they often poke fun at simplistic theology, as when a little boy in “Prophet” guesses that god lives in Des Moines (“Des Moines is the capital.”), or in this passage from “Highway:”
I never stopped looking up during my prayers, never ceded the idea that Heaven floats somewhere above us. As if God presides over a kingdom reachable by mountains and ladders. As if Heaven were a New World somehow missed by satellites and planes, and not a different universe entirely, one removed from the unwilling and inconsolable.
Used less elegantly or too often, such reflections could turn a story didactic. Here, they help the stories point toward greater significance while remaining grounded in their narratives and not the ideas behind them.
The only misstep in Chicago is “I Know Who You Are,” marred by vagueness. The narrator follows around a man with a problem he thinks he can help, but we never learn who the man is, what his problem is, or how the narrator thinks he can help. Clouther says in the press materials that “the reader’s interpretation is the only interpretation that matters to me,” but readers puzzling their way through the mechanics of this story may not be able to find much significance in it.
In the title story, which follows two middle-aged women reluctantly taking a flight to Chicago, remembering happier days while getting glimpses of fellow passengers’ lives, Clouther makes more use of unnamed narrators, and better shows the strengths of his collection. We don’t know who the women are, but we know what they’re going through. We’ve probably been there, too.
—Available May 13th from Black Balloon Press