Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
Matt Cashion’s short story collection, Last Words of the Holy Ghost, won the 2015 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, thus announcing a reputable voice in American writing. The twelve stories, however, circle around the more common elements in absurdist fiction: satire, dark humor, the abasement of reason. It’s a narrative view that grew out of modern literature’s influence from existential philosophy. At one extreme with absurdist fiction, readers might find characters using live flamingos as croquet mallets, or, on the other extreme, the protagonist Oedipa Maas who is intent on unraveling what she perceives to be a world conspiracy but which is in fact merely a stamp auction.
There is, of course, pleasure to be had; humorous situations evoke a certain kind of pleasure even if that pleasure arises from frustrated expectations. With those humorous situations, then, when something that begins with a relative amount of seriousness turns trivial or ludicrous, the residue is bathos. When the humorous situations evoke emotions of pity or sorrow, however, the residue is pathos. Residue, of course, is what remains after something has been removed—grease in the frying pan, or what’s
left at the bottom of the wine bottle, or, more figuratively, what remains in the reader’s imagination as in the last 50 lines of Molly Bloom’s Penelope monologue in Ulysses, that wonderful affirmative stepping into her sensual world.
Having noted that, Cashion’s concluding story, “The Funeral Starts at Two,” concludes with “I squeezed her hand. I said, ‘Ha-ha.'” According to John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin, guiding us, inciting us to live fruitful lives. Thus the title of this collection of short stories suggests that the last words in the collection, “Ha-ha,” match the motif: last words of the Holy Ghost. If that were not the case, one might retitle the collection, Slouching Toward Boredom, or Toward Absurdity, or, well….
Suppose, though, the laughter is ridicule, which would make the last words of the Holy Ghost a dichotomy, scornful mockery, something other than good-natured wit. If the last words are thus sardonic, it’s doubtful the result is less the Holy Ghost’s joy and more chastisement at spiritual hollowness.
Cashion’s first story in the collection is “The Girl Who Drowned at School That Time.” The story is set in a small town and is centered on Josephine, a young college graduate working as an administrative assistant at the local school. Dotty Kirkland has drowned in the nearby school pond and the teacher who had failed to account for her presence has been suspended pending an investigation.
It’s a heavy, melancholy, morbid moment in the life of this small town; the school board is thus attempting to devise a strategy that will prevent other children from drowning in the pond. Cecil Goodbread has suggested that the pond be drained and filled with dirt; his motion is seconded by Reverend Baker and is unanimously approved.
The humor is subtle: What to do with the fish? The novel becomes, then, a darkly comic take on Josephine’s attempts to plan the fish-fry while dealing with the small town’s pedestrians, a kind word, and her budding romance with Ray whose Pinto is parked in front of his green trailer. His fascination is with cockroaches.
The story’s humor is derived from such grotesque, if not surreal, situations. The story develops: townsmen seine the pond, fish are scooped and tossed to other townsmen who skull them with ax-handles, others skin and scale, families arrive, and Josephine collects $6.95 from every person coming down the serving line.
Josephine is not hungry:
Across the back side of the pond, a group of school boys were destroying turtles with ax handles and baseball bats. . . . Lou Duncan buried the butt-end of a pitchfork in the ground, and stuck a turtle on its prongs. Its arms and legs were moving as if it meant to swim.
There’s a conflict here in the story’s template: If this is a picture of the social world in which we live, then we live in an absurd world; thus, don’t look for transcendent meaning. Characters will, however, continue to live and attempt to construct lives in spite of the confusion and without transcendent hope.
It’s important thematically to note such in these stories.
Josephine might have a “version” of herself walking through the crowd, “across the parking lot to the road and down that road to another road that would lead, eventually to an interstate that would take [her] to another life.” But it would take a refusal, an everlasting “no,” and when she opens her mouth to speak that “no,” the irony is that she feels “weighed down by a thousand years’ worth of heat and history, and all [her] words for ‘no’ had vanished.”
What’s left, then, is residue; and in this case, not silliness but exasperation and pathos.
The second story in the collection is the title story: “Last Words of the Holy Ghost.” It’s a prize-winning story that’s also been made into a movie short. It begins thus:
Harold’s mother, Jude, said he shouldn’t worry about getting saved or baptized or having to speak in tongues if all he cared about was sex. She sat on the couch in her robe, applying red polish to her nails after a day of oil painting. Her third husband, Clay Carter, occupied his recliner, cleaning his teeth and gums with his battery-powered brush. Harold lay between them on the floor, staring at the divot he’d made in the ceiling with his three-iron. His pit bull, Maggie, snored against his side while Dan Rather, the evening news anchor, talked of chaos in Guatemala.
One does not need to get caught up in semantics—subjectivity, either/or for example—but Harold has arrived at one of those stages in life’s way, an impulse but also planning for future possibilities with Rose Carver, about whom Jude insists that Harold, at age 14, should accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior before he and Rose “go to a goddamn movie together.” To which Clay murmurs without removing his toothbrush, “I don’t think it would hurt him.” Jude responds: “You don’t think what would hurt him? . . . Getting saved or having sex?” Clay mumbles a quotable one-liner: “Being baptized doesn’t always lead to sex…”
Rose may, of course, be the first girl who ever smiled at Harold but there’s a thematic point to be made about this story matching that of the first story: What’s left is residue. And in this story, the residue is bathos.
The conclusion is also thus the same: detail upon detail upon detail contribute to the absurdity. Harold’s “heart was a trout lying in the woods. A sun-baked trout whose mouth kept moving, spilling final words from the Holy Ghost. A trout whose eyes had turned to scales, who couldn’t cry enough tears to save itself. He wanted to wander through the woods until he found it. He would put it in his pocket, or wear it around his neck, and present it to the first girl who smiled at him.”
The titles to these short stories are fetching: “Awful Pretty,” “Chuck Langford Jr., Depressed Auctioner, Takes Action,” “Nothing Ruins a Good Story Like an Eyewitness,” “Clarissa Drives John-boy to the Jacksonvill Airport,” “Any Idiot Can Feel Pain,” “The Funeral Starts at Two.” Of the total, and given the grotesque nature of the stories, back cover “blurbs” suggest the stories are slices of life lived at the margins, akin, say, to Flannery O’Connor’s stories.
One could thus imagine Miss O’Connor on the porch glossing the stories, but I suspect there would be disappointment. One might also characterize the stories as owning Faulknerian turns, but when characters yearn for more, for something to aid them in their daily sorrows, a reader might also expect to be rewarded with something more than the residue of either bathos or pathos.
If Kierkegaard was right in describing life’s subjective processes as aesthetic, ethical, and religious, and the transition from one to the other the result of that delicious device, irony, then the characters in these stories are not granted such a self-conscious transition; they’re thus unable to gain control over their lives. There’s irony aplenty, and to be relished, but like those characters in that “Seinfeld” television series, these characters are socially apathetic.