Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Review from 31.1

Peter Selgin. Drowning Lessons. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2008. $24.95 hardcover (ISBN 978-0-8203-3210-9), 233 pages.

Reviewed by Chad Anderson

Peter Selgin’s Drowning Lessons is a collection that, more than anything, focuses on the nature of solitude—self-imposed or otherwise. These thirteen stories travel from the peaks of Andean mountains to the watercolor coasts of Crete to a lake in New Jersey, and Selgin’s deft hand reveals the beauty of the world while never idealizing it. In fact, despite the often serious plights of his characters, Selgin’s tone is often playful, albeit cynical. The humor does not detract from the near tragedies within the collection, but instead serves as a flame to illuminate them.

Selgin’s balance of humor and heartbreak is demonstrated in the story “Sawdust.” The young narrator aches from the disappearance of his beloved teacher with whom he is suspected of having an inappropriate relationship. Juxtaposed against the narrator’s melancholy and confusion about his sexuality is the humorous character of Mr. Bulfamante, a.k.a. Sugar, a French boxer-turned-floor sander who, as a favor to the narrator’s mother, takes the boy as an apprentice and serves as his father figure:

Before he’d let me into his van, Sugar would make sure that I’d brought my thermos full of bouillon. Sugar insisted on hot bouillon as the only suitable beverage for floor sanders and boxers, summer and winter. Not lemonade or iced tea or coffee or hot chocolate. Bouillon. And not chicken bouillon, either. Beef. Chicken was for fruitcakes. Also the bouillon couldn’t be made from those little cubes, none of that Herb-Ox or Knorr Swiss crap. It had to be real. Homemade.

Sugar, however, isn’t merely comic relief. His distinct brand of masculinity conflicts with the masculinity the narrator learns from his romantic, worldly teacher, and in the end, the two ideals collide, forcing the narrator to truthfully consider the kind of man he wants to be.

As in “Sawdust,” the protagonists of Selgin’s stories are most often paired with other characters that could bring out the best and worst in them. A failed shoe store owner who happens to be the son of a failed cartoonist is hired by the whimsical Pablo Picasso to drive him from Los Angeles to the country of Colombia. A Manhattan doorman has a fling with a crippled woman and later refuses to accept that she has played him when she doesn’t show up for a date. A poor, elderly Black woman cares for the last living survivor of the Titantic, escorting him to the events of wealthy history buffs. Part of the pleasure in reading Selgin’s stories is to see how these pairs uplift or undo one another, whether they become foils or friends or both, and whether the protagonists choose solitude or fight against it.

While the protagonists are usually in the presence of a prominent secondary character, they (and by extension, Selgin) seem concerned with the nature of loneliness. In “Color of the Sea,” Andrew—a discontented, middle-aged artist—and Karina—a young, impulsive Brazilian—strangers to one another, decide to embark on driving tour of Crete together. Moving though the beautifully-rendered Cretan landscape and acknowledging their palpable sexual tension, the two travelers simultaneously irritate and fascinate one another, discussing love, sex, age, and, most especially, loneliness:

“…That’s what loneliness is. No longer being able to enjoy being alone with yourself. When you’re lonely, the person you really want to be with is yourself.”
“That is an interesting theory. And how does one learn to do that?”
Andrew shrugged. “Go for a walk, eat a nice meal by candlelight; romance yourself. Ask yourself, ‘What do I feel like doing today?’ It sounds strange, but why should it? Why should it be so strange to do with ourselves what we think nothing of doing with others? Why—for example—should I be more courteous to you, whom I barely know, than to myself, whom I’ll know for the rest of my life? It doesn’t make sense.”

In this story and others, loneliness itself is a character, creating distances between siblings and lovers, forging bonds between strangers and enemies. The characters in Drowning Lessons must ultimately choose between risking their hearts for another person and embracing solitude, and no matter what happens, learn to be content with their decision. Selgin’s surprising and generous collection suggests that only we can teach ourselves the lessons we need to endure the world or even to escape it.

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