Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
The thirteen stories in Elizabeth Genovise’s Where There Are Two Or More are set in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. It’s her second collection and a marked advance in craft and theme from her first collection, A Different Harbor. The stories are beautifully intimate, intensely direct, and evidence as to why she has an O’Henry nomination.
The title raises suggestive questions.
One wonders if the reference in those two verses in Matthew’s Gospel is to the power that can be achieved in coming together in agreement. When two or more come together and work toward an agreed upon goal, the argument is that something magical or mystical can occur. Help, in other words, is often unexpected; thus where there are two or more, there is always a potential for clarity, an epiphany appearing in a character’s life that the character never saw coming.
There’s a bit more, however, by way of introduction. Genovise’s stories thematically suggest there is order in this world, and some poetic justice that follows a plan which is something much more than a universal romantic wish that people are basically good. If these Tennessee stories were so patterned, the result would be mere local color or melodrama. The stories, on the other hand, are so constructed—without any unraveling—to gravitate toward a concentrated ending around all that has preceded, delightfully so.
The initial story in the collection, “The First Fog,” begins with, “It is September, and it is the first brush Kirsten, Conrad, and Josiah have had with death. They are twelve years old.” It comes without warning: a driver loses control of his car in a heavy fog and the car careens into a lake. Elisabeth and Lane drown before Owen can save them. For the three children the story is fascinating; the gossips believe Owen’s head is not quite right after the accident, more so because Owen insisted that when he “surfaced from his last attempt to save [Elisabeth and Lane], he saw them walking across the lake, holding hands. He said they looked like mist . . . . his friends were still in the world, just not the one we are familiar with.”
The story could become melodramatic if the narrator interpreted the thoughts of three children as mordant. They talk about death, that universal certainty which can force an awareness, albeit difficult to get one’s mind around. The conversation exhausts them, especially when the group considers Owen’s story of Elisabeth and Lane walking across the lake, holding hands. The mystical strangeness to the story concerns, then, temporal beings who live in time but who have also come to the fact of their own mortality: It’s misty, a thickening fog, and an emblem for temporality.
If for the instant, however, the fog lifts and one is granted a privileged moment, what would one see? It’s an enchanting variation on myth, one in which we escape from the mundane weight of time to experience eternity. “Proof,” Genovise writes, “that there is always a counterpart to loss, a mirror image for every tragedy.” No one, after all, is truly gone, and when there are two or more who believe such, who experience such insight, a “surge of vindication” will come, and with it “a wave of something like hope.”
“Jonah” is the fourth story in this collection. A young woman has graduated college and taken a teaching job at a tiny school, a New Age, hybridized Christian fundamentalist academy. The students range from age nine to eighteen and all are beset with difficulties, smatterings of learning disorders, anger management problems, attention disorder deficits, code
words, the first person narrator notes, for “‘spoiled rotten.'” The story becomes a study in human nature when there are two or more gathered and of those gathered there’s Tanner: “…everyone’s nightmare . . . . He’s violent and dumb as bricks.” Melinda, the headmistress at this school for misfits, croons, ‘”We have to forgive. Forgive and just love them.”‘
There’s one reason the narrator has not left this “academy for Knoxville’s rejects”; she lives for Jonah, who isn’t like other kids. He’s likely autistic and with this social murkiness it’s difficult to determine how clarity could ever be reached with such a challenging student, or how such a student challenges the narrator’s patience. Like the biblical character Cain, Jonah has determined that he isn’t “worth anything better,” to God and to everyone. But the story concludes that when there are two or more there is also “unbearable mercy,” which is our narrator’s—Amelia’s—epiphany, her moment of clarity.
The point isn’t that everything should be easy; there are stubborn weeds in everyone’s garden of life. On the other hand, when two or more bend their hearts in agreement, one might believe the result is a faithful if not supernatural boost.
“September Dance” is a mid-point story in the collection. A woman has come home from work, an overnight shift at a factory. Her husband will usually leave just as she is getting back. Their son would be sleeping. The narrator notes, however, that for “months there had been a warning bell clanging, telling her it was no longer safe to leave her son alone with her husband.”
She arrives home in the dark and turns on the bathroom light to find her son face down in the bathtub, “his hair spooled out around his head in an auburn halo and his rubber toys bobbing on the water.”
The story develops then through a series of taut sentences: She loads a small revolver and when her husband grabs her and bashes her head into the sink, she shoots him “point-blank between the eyes.”
And she runs beside a stream to a clearing where there had once been a September dance, the taut sentences also running. It’s complicated by memory, memory of the man who would enter her life, the man “who would move her into a house that was like a casket, give her a child he did not want, and then slowly teach her what hell was.” She is startled, then, to see someone else bending over an abandoned boat.
It’s a man she knows or remembers, from another time, an earlier time. His name is Otto and he helps her into the boat “and they begin their gentle course downriver.”
For Elisa, it’s transforming to be with someone with kindness in his voice, the nascent light of the river, its motion never uniform but “uncoiling in all directions, cavorting like dancers.” They have all the time in the world until Elisa drops her hand into the river to feel the water. “The chill startles her and she opens her eyes.”
It’s memory reshaped, of course, and consciousness, but in this instance less a mulling over a past event as if memory were nothing more, nothing less than an aspect of some neuroscience, and more an encounter with grace, the grace of memory. Elisa opens her eyes and voices and sirens are pealing in those moments before “they” take her away; she can, though, “perceive the gentle lapping of the water, and the quick flash of something beneath the surface.” It’s an interlude between the “hell” Elisa has suffered with the death of her child and the death of her husband and what awaits her when she’s removed from her home. Such an interlude concerning two or more is prelude to an equally punishing future life but with, however, the unbearable mercy given to Elisa through the grace of memory, an encounter with grace.
Such is the motif that continues through this gathering of stories, stories of deep delight which can be found anywhere if one is watchful. Consider for the moment “Tea and Oranges,” a story appearing near the end of Where There Are Two Or More. A woman begins going to a Kroger store after her divorce. She comes to know the staff, two or more, and another shopper, the elderly Mrs. Hansard who also works at J.C. Penney. Her story interests the narrator.
At the Kroger store, there’s a young man in training, Davy. His story interests Mrs. Hansard, who becomes concerned about his future. The narrator notes that she seems to have come out of her “padded box”; but as the story develops around these “two or more,” Mrs. Hansard’s interest develops into a mothering ambition to help Davy, who wears the “spitting image of his father.” Davy is Mrs. Hansard’s grandson, or so she thinks. The story’s delight rests in the conclusion, as with most of the stories in this remarkable collection: “Regret,” the narrator concludes, “washes up in the human heart like wreckage on a beach.” But she has come to envy Mrs. Hansard’s relief upon seeing her grandson in the checkout lane at Krogers. Since then, the narrator notes, “I too have scanned the faces of strangers, in the wards and in crowds, in checkout lines and on trains, hoping to be startled into deliverance by a face that is my own.”
Genius, Robert Penn Warren once wrote, is to be found in stories of great distances, and starlight, and time, stories of deep delight. One cannot help concluding that old Penn Warren would find deep delight in this very fine collection by Elizabeth Genovise. That’s high praise, I know, but these stories fulfill that living quest for stories of deep delight.