Our current political conversation often revolves around the financial disparities rampant in American culture. Polly Buckingham’s recent story collection, The Expense of a View, hones in on the lives most impacted by the inequalities this gaping imbalance engenders. Buckingham tells the stories of the system’s most vulnerable—the ill, the partnerless, the parentless, the addicted, the poor, the isolated—exploring what it means to try to be a “healthy” adult when life has always lacked a major component of stability. The Expense of a View won the 2016 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction, and was released this past fall from the University of North Texas Press.
The inaugural story, “Honey,” is one of the collection’s best. In it, Buckingham gives a glimpse into the life of a “transplant”—a woman in a new place, “with a new job and no new friends.” She’s observant of the graffiti calling a former neighbor “snitch,” of the “dismembered motorcycle,” of the dog that’s died in her wood shed. Buckingham plays with the language, evoking things there and not there, the sense of two worlds coexisting. Is the Labrador sleeping or dead? Is its face pockmarked or shadowed? These differing interpretations of observed phenomena provide the reader with insight into the stories that follow and the collection as a whole. The point of view is half of the story. It controls how events and people are understood, placing blame or vindicating, vilifying or lionizing. The onus is on the readers, in part, to question what bias we bring with us. “Honey,” like many of the pieces that follow it, presents a believable picture of a depressed place that is all too full of dark realities.
Buckingham is concerned with the effect of environment on mindset, and vice versa. About the protagonist of “Night Train,” she writes, “His office is dark, except for sudden flickers of light shining into the porch.” This sentence perfectly describes the interior of this character’s mind as he descends further into emotional shadow after a family death. And on addiction, Buckingham is subtly observant: “Adjusting meds doesn’t work if you bury them in the potted plants.” As the title of the book suggests, these stories are preoccupied with people who don’t have the capital to obtain a view—either literal or figurative.
The book falls apart in a couple of ways. The first one occurs at the micro level, as descriptions are repeated across stories: “unshaven legs,” the same cigarettes, the same comparison of owls and doves, and multiple “no trespassing” signs. This makes the characters feel less than individual. They’re oddly joined by these details, and not fully their own believable selves.
The second occurs on a larger scale. For short stories to work, they must prize economy and astute observation. They must have a point, at least for the author. If there’s confusion in the author, it will show up for the reader too—and this is sometimes the case in Buckingham’s debut collection. In the story, “Three of Swords,” the characters feel more like caricatures—drawings of strangers in which only the blatant features stand out, dilated. It’s clear that Buckingham was attempting to convey the scrambled mindset of this story’s narrator, who tells us very quickly that she sees “things other people can’t see.” This sets the reader up for disbelief of a story that’s already far-fetched and not quite fleshed out. The protagonist knows a girl has been abducted, is living in a woman’s barn, hides tarot cards, and eschews eating. There are several nice turns of phrase, but the story lacks a through-line and leaves the reader confused by a world in which it is difficult to find footing between the real and unreal.
With that said, there are beautiful, true moments, but they don’t stand out as much as they could because of the stories’ lack of artistic control. “My Old Man,” a story about a single mother and her sickly child, contains many such moments. One happens when the protagonist is at the hospital trying to coax her son into seeing the doctor:
“Quentin,” I say. But he doesn’t answer. He’s crying. I slip onto the floor, and…peer under the black bench. He’s pressed against the wall. There is fear and stubborn refusal in his red face. His eyes are wide and he’s pinching his arms. My eyes well up.
This story gains much of its power and continuity from its point of view. It’s told by the mother, and can thus convincingly and closely detail her surroundings and emotions and how those two play into each other.
Though, undoubtedly, these stories need to be told, I wish they’d been more fully revised and, in some cases, fleshed out. Now, more than ever, we need to hear from and about the disenfranchised. We need powerful storytelling. But even the decisions made on the sentence-level of a story have a large impact. I don’t regret having read this book, and I applaud Buckingham’s efforts. There’s much to learn about writing here. Unfortunately, it’s often the strongest books that hide their tricks best. Those who have mastered their craft don’t leave erasure marks and pencil shavings. They give the finished, seamless product to the reader, leaving little hint to how it arrived in that final state. I hope Buckingham writes again, because it’s clear she has something to say.
Publication Date: November 15, 2016
Publisher: University of North Texas Press
Reviewed by Sarah Hoenicke