Reviewed by Donna Meredith
In L.C. Fiore’s short story, “The Trench Garden,” which appears in the new Ploughshare’s Solos series, four men come together to restore a ravine in Tennessee while World War II rages on the other side of the ocean. With his clear prose, Fiore crafts a story that meets Poe’s primary directive: it strives for a single effect that begins with the first sentence—or in this case, the title—and leads to a satisfying conclusion. The title fittingly uses the language of war. Both conflict and the first flowering of dreams take place in this ravine over the summer.
W.T. Harlan is the alcoholic professor of English whose dream is turning a refuse and weed-filled chasm into a botanical garden.
This vision pulls three others into a crucible heated by the summer sun as well as ethnocentric and class tensions. Two are college students: Steven Darby, a poor lad who needs the pittance the summer job will pay; and Benjamin Mason, who resents his wealthy father enough that he will work anywhere else but in his father’s law firm. Both young men chose this job partly because they hope to further their ambitions as writers by association with the renowned Professor Harlan. They are joined by a German POW, Torben, the “most beautiful and the most terrifying human being” Darby has ever encountered.
Darby longs to see the ruins of Egypt and Rome “[l]ike some dark and erotic desire he couldn’t name.” Though he romanticizes the ancient past revealed in poems, he has no such enchantment with the war because of his father’s refusal to discuss the First World War. He tries to hear “what isn’t being told” in news reports, and “to understand the events from both sides.” Darby feels the pull of the world beyond the Tennessee hills, a pull heightened by the presence of the German soldier, who is evidence that a larger world does indeed exist.
One can’t help but recognize the similarities to James Joyce’s character Stephen Dedalus, who says, “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” Even though the country Joyce refers to is not the United States, the sentiment is similar, and both tales concern an artist as a young man.
In contrast with Darby, Benjamin is fascinated by the violence of war. He obsesses over news reports and expresses disgust that Professor Harlan expects him to work beside “a Hun.” Benjamin admits he will never be a soldier because the rich are exempt from fighting wars. He is largely an unlikeable character, except for his recognition that “Money makes you crazy.” His father’s efforts to be successful meant he was never home.
As the summer progresses, Professor Harlan reveals his own warts. Besides being “industrious as ants,” Germans, in his eyes, have few redeeming qualities. Darby offers possible contributions to culture they have made: Dadaism, Remarque, and Nabokov. The first two are understandable; the latter, not so much since Nabokov was Russian-born and, as the professor pointed out, “wrote in Russian.” America belongs to the English, according to the professor, which causes Darby to experience a sense of displacement in his own land, feeling closer to the German soldier than to his roommate Benjamin or the drunken professor.
The conflicting personalities bubble into a final act of cruelty, but the story also offers kindness capable of bridging the divide of culture and ethnicity. “The Trench Garden” is well worth reading.
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Fiore’s debut novel Green Gospel, was named First Runner-Up in the 2012 Eric Hoffer Book Awards and was short-listed for the 2011 Balcones Fiction Prize. His fiction has appeared in various literary journals. Communications director for the North Carolina Writers’ Network, Fiore lives in Durham, North Carolina. See www.lcfiore.com for more information on his writing.
Ploughshares Solos is a digital-only series of stories, essays, and novellas, published by the well-respected Ploughshares Literary Magazine in Boston, Massachusetts. Roughly every month, a new Solo is released.