A few weeks ago, author Donald Ray Pollock recommended Jerry Gabriel’s Drowned Boy on All Sides Weekend/Books (WOSU NPR 820), a monthly talk show I participate in with host Christopher Purdy. At the word “drowned,” my thoughts went to Jim Grimsley’s 1997 novel, My Drowning. In that split second confusion, I heard only a little bit about Gabriel’s book because my multi-tasking mind was recalling that other, disquieting book about family hardship and abuse, in a setting of poverty among the cotton fields and tobacco beds of North Carolina.
Now, dial ahead to the Ohioana Book Festival this past weekend. I was walking among the tables of books attended by their authors, and a friend, who heard the April 16 All Sides/Book show, said to me, “Jerry Gabriel is here. You know, Drowned Boy.” Curiosity from the radio discussion (which my subconscious must have absorbed while my thoughts entangled themselves over the wrong book) visited me like a sonic boom. Or maybe it was the lights flashing over something my literary instinct was saying I shouldn’t overlook.
Drowned Boy won the 2008 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. It was selected by Andrea Barrett, whose unforgettable collection of stories, Ship Fever, won the National Book Award in 1996. This is Gabriel’s first work of fiction, linked stories that take place in Moraine, Ohio, where brothers Nat and Donnie Holland come of age. (Pollock’s stories in his first book also take place in small-town Ohio, the now widely known Knockemstiff, Ohio.)
In her foreword to Drowned Boy, Barrett tells readers: “These stories are filled with boys, poised between one state and the next: not just Nate and Donnie but a runaway boy, a lost boy, a beaten boy, a clever boy — and, of course, the drowned boy of the excellent title novella. He remains offstage, leaving Nate, newly out of high school, and a classmate named Samantha, to vibrate to the consequences of his death. But although we never meet him, his drowning resonates metaphorically through the collection. In Moraine, Nate’s entire generation seems to be in danger of sinking beneath the water.”
A signed copy of Drowned Boy is now on my reading table. The draw on me to read it is the power of place, that which can stand out in fiction as profound and memorable as a character. I hope to get to the collection’s eight stories sooner rather than later. “Later” as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace later. To all those TLC readers who heard me at New Year’s resolve to read the Russian tome in 2010, I opened it this weekend. I mean that literally. It’s lying open on a table in the living room to the first page. Beside it is Drowned Boy.
Moraine, Ohio, and Moscow, side by side. Books take us everywhere. I love that.