There are 10 stories in this immensely enjoyable collection, all set in small town Sherman, Ohio. The provincialism creates the allure, with characters who have little experience beyond their locale, but whose struggles are like the many beyond its boundaries. That’s especially true when it comes to mental illness and emotionally driven behaviors. If you’re depressed, obsessive, delusional or struggling with anger – as are these characters – it doesn’t matter where you live.
Sherman, Ohio, in reality exists as a township in the northern half of the state; however, author Mark Brazaitis’ creation is an imagined place with its Tree of Knowledge elementary school, Hotel Sherman, Book and Brew bookstore and Three O’Clock café. There’s also the Main Street Bridge, featured in the first story.
That first story, “The Bridge,” of all the stories, brings home Brazaitis’ message of national relevance with its odd, unsettling premise — from the bridge railings, a public spectacle of suicide jumpers erupts, “a comedy, as circus.” The jumpers, however, are not all locals. People are busing in from other states to take the death leap, proving “the Main Street Bridge was the nation’s problem.” Sheriff John Lewis struggles to control the suicide epidemic, while his own depression begins to swallow him.
Part of the allure of the provincialism in The Incurables is the fact Sherman residents don’t feel the need to leave. Neither do they feel trapped, as do the residents of Winesburg and Knockemstiff, the small Ohio towns created respectively by Sherwood Anderson and Donald Ray Pollock in their story collections. Indeed, Sherman natives willingly return, seeking salvation, safety and renewal, such as Adam “Drew” Drewshevsky in the title story. Venereal disease ends his erotic film career, and Drew hopes “to find something in his hometown that would return him to the man — the boy, really — he’d once been.”
Anna is another resident who returns. She’s not the protagonist in “A Map of the Forbidden,” rather the catalyst that ignites Tim Kovitch, owner of the Book and Brew, to follow in his father’s adulterous footsteps. While her presence in Sherman tempts Tim to sin, Anna’s return is due to her desire to study painting at Sherman’s Ohio Eastern University.
Tim’s infidelity may seem like common fare, but it’s not, due to the way this husband, in an instant, becomes his father’s clone. It’s as if Tim inherited his father’s insatiable drive toward romantic affairs, even though “where the father ventured, the son knew to retreat.” The conditions such as Tim’s that affect the characters in The Incurables are considered incurable because they can’t stop themselves, even if it means losing what they want most, a life founded on love and understanding.
In my favorite story, “This Man, This Woman, This Child, This Town,” the protagonist Martin continually falls for mercurial women who leave him. The relationship we read about leads him down a dark path. In the background, though, we have his mother as Greek chorus with her steady, simple truths. She doesn’t speak a lot, but when she does, she provides a deeper meaning to all the stories in The Incurables, a collection that gracefully speaks to our humanity.
“It takes a lifetime for a place to get to know you,” [Martin’s mother] says, “and having lived all of my sixty-two years in Sherman, I’d be giving up someone who knew me and understood me and loved me in exchange for a dance with a stranger.” She looks at Martin across the picnic table. “No one knows you the way people do in Sherman. Outside of Sherman, they’d see you for who they thought you were.”
“They could get to know me.”
“It’s one thing to know a man from when he was an infant. It’s another to know him only when he’s a giant.”