July Read of the Month: “Suite for Three Voices,” by Derek Furr

Derek Furr

Reviewed by Cameron Williams

In “Starting from Error,” the prelude to Suite for Three Voices (a piece also nominated for the Pushcart Prize), Derek Furr muses, “What if there were an ‘h’ in ‘went,’ as there so often was in my students’ writing? When is involved in went, time rolled up in the past tense, its graveclothes.” Like a conductor’s delicate, rhythmic flick of a wrist, this passage serves as a sort of metronome, setting the tempo for the rest of the book. At its core, Suite for Three Voices is a reflection on time, on the interplay of past and present, and on the power of memory and storytelling. These themes are compelling, but it’s the narrative structure that really marks Furr’s work as inventive: drawing inspiration from classical music, Suite for Three Voices is divided into clusters, or movements (beginning with a prelude, followed by an allemande, and eventually concluding with a gigue), and each movement is a collection of the three “voices” identified in the title: personal narrative, short fiction, and essay.

The short fiction is perhaps the most dynamic voice of the three. “Feed My Sheep,” for example—about two women, Irene and Gladys, who pick up a strange hitchhiker on the side of the road—is dark and haunting, a sort of classically Southern gothic story that raises more questions than it answers. Irene, a self-righteous, platitude-spouting do-gooder, is the sort of character one would expect to encounter in a Flannery O’Connor story, a modern version of Mrs. Hopewell or Ruby Turpin. In another, “Second Sight,” a man foresees his older brother dying in a car accident, just moments before the first plane flies into the World Trade Center on September 11th. Conflating a national catastrophe with a personal one, Furr’s story explores the far-reaching effects of tragedy and how we—as individuals and as a nation—experience grief. This story, as is true of many of the other pieces in the collection, is furthermore a meditation on the importance of family, a theme often associated with “southern” literature but that—as Furr demonstrates—really extends beyond regional borders, binding us all in our humanity.

The personal narratives are equally remarkable, sharply blending pathos and humor. In “Tabula Rasa,” Furr recounts his paternal grandfather’s descent into dementia. Always an avid storyteller, now, in old age, with no short-term memory, his Papa Howard tells the same stories over and over again. “Yellow Pajamas” is a similar tale about Furr’s maternal grandfather’s decline. Here, however, Furr too explores his own inability to recall certain details about some of his last moments spent with Papa John before his grandfather sadly succumbed to cancer. These narratives are somber, but are a powerful testament to the wonder of memory, of how—as Furr writes—“life after death comes to those whose stories endure.” In a lighter narrative, “Paddling Miss Patsy”—the adorable anecdote of young Furr giving his beloved third grade teacher a birthday paddling on the behind—Furr continues to turn his gaze in on himself, here expertly capturing the awkwardness of childhood crushes and the lessons they eventually teach us about life.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that the third voice, essay, isn’t worth hearing; the essays in this collection are also smart and engaging (although, to be frank, I did find myself reading them at a slightly slower pace than I found myself reading the personal narratives or the short fiction).  And though Furr calls them “essays,” they are all also partly personal narratives. This is ultimately one of the most magnificent things about Furr’s entire collection: that these three distinct voices often blur together, the boundaries between them at times collapsing. Moreover, they apply critical, literary analysis to real world situations in a way that’s accessible and unpretentious. The essays range in topic from deer to Romantic poetry to Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Neil Young. Furr’s ability to discuss such a variety of topics only further attests to his range of talent as a writer.

Suite for Three Voices is one of the most original books I’ve read in a long time, and I thoroughly, genuinely enjoyed reading it. Many of these pieces left me thinking about them long after reading, which—to me—is always a sign of good writing. I also already have plans to use at least one of the personal narratives (probably “Paddling Miss Patsy,” my personal favorite) as an example in my freshman composition class in the fall, something I’d like to think that Furr would appreciate.

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