Proof that there can be too much of a good thing.
Tim Gautreaux’s latest work, a collection of short stories called Signals, is proof that there can be too much of a good thing. The stories take place primarily in or around the author’s beloved Louisiana and follow the lives of working class people with old ties to the places they call home. These are people who take pride in what little they have, as well as in the labor that provided them with it. Many of the 21 pieces are fable-like, with an introduction to the principal players in the beginning and a moral lesson at the end. “Idols” introduces characters struggling with the folly of pride; in “Good for the Soul,” the sin is pride and also drink.
Gautreaux’s prose is often sparse, more concerned with action than emotion, and he writes primarily in third person with limited access to the inner workings of the characters. His writing somewhat resembles Raymond Carver in style and theme, and fans of Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love will find much of Signals enjoyable, if familiar.
The difference, however, between Carver’s famous collection of stories and Signals is in length and variation. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is 157 pages. Gautreaux’s latest collection is 384. That the book is far longer than average for an anthology whose stories don’t quite intersect and a bit longer even than the average regular novel shouldn’t put a reader off, but the lack of variety might. With few exceptions, the stories are around 17 pages long, written from the same point of view and about the same type of people. Gateaux, author of The Clearing, adds local color in the form of dialogue, but again there is little to set the characters apart, nearly all of them middle-aged men from the same Southern American lower middle class background.
While individual stories are quite good, from cover to cover the effect is something like perusing a dictionary; the reader almost immediately learns the main characters’ names and then their functions. We are left with just enough information about the people, their towns and their problems to be able to define them. But just as the stories are long enough to end with a tidy near-sermon, they often finish before forcing the characters into real conflict, the likes of which might require more than a passing glimpse into their mental and spiritual states.
It’s easy to see why many of these compelling, well-written stories were first published in popular journals. Gateaux is a keen observer of people, especially those in tight-knit blue collar communities. Unfortunately, as a collection, the effect of these stories is muted through repetition; two consecutive pieces deal with the consequences of memory loss. A number of stories focus on different priests. Names are reused, and it can be difficult to distinguish characters. Nearly all of the book’s women (who are secondary characters) hate and eventually leave their husbands. Moreover, the stories work best before the redemptive conclusion. “The Review,” arguably one of the strongest pieces, is dark and challenging, inspiring introspection from the audience, only to have its edge dulled by the last few paragraphs. In this way, not knowing when to stop seems almost a theme of the book itself, from the individual stories’ endings to the very length of the book.
If the task of approaching the anthology as though it were a novel seems daunting, the book is worth reading for individual gems. A few pieces stand out, like “Welding with Children,” a humorous bit about a man and his grandchildren, and “What We Don’t See in the Light,” a haunting story with the sentences that might stay with the reader for life. Nevertheless, Signals is best read one story at a time.