The Bleak and the Beautiful: With Boston and its suburbs as backdrop, David Crouse pulls light from darkness
Boston Phoenix, November 2006
By Nina MacLaughlin
A winter walk with a part-time prostitute on Salisbury Beach. A confrontation with a homeless man on Boylston Street. A never-ending party with aging burnouts inside a tattered old Victorian in Lawrence.
David Crouse excels at placing his readers within the “serene suburban quiet” that makes it “feel like something horrible [is] going to happen.”
In his debut short-story collection, Copy Cats (University of Georgia Press), the 38-year-old native of Haverhill presents stark stories in which the bleak and the beautiful are tethered by tender, tenuous strings – all within the outskirts of Boston.
“People are where they live,” says Crouse, who teaches writing at New Hampshire’s Chester College of New England. “The places where we live make us who we are…. You have a foundational place in your life, a place where you have key experiences. You keep going back there. I’m going to write about this place for the rest of my life.”
The collection of seven stories and one novella – which won a 2005 Flannery O’ Connor Award for short fiction – effectively walks a tightrope between dark and light, the bleak and the bright.
There’s Office Space absurdity in “Code,” an ink-black comedy about a man in the midst of a wave of layoffs. Humor is balanced by Crouse’s portrait of a man in crisis. Stuck in a traffic jam – symbol of rat-race entrapment – the narrator exits his car, climbs over the guard rail, and wanders into the woods, stripping naked as he goes. It’s a moment of supreme liberation – beauty in the bleak – but it’s also a moment in which a man becomes unhinged. Crouse is gifted at crafting scenes that resonate in multiple ways. In the worlds he creates, nothing is black and white.
In “Kopy Kats,” Anthony works at a Kinko’s-type copy shop in Boston with co-workers – “talentless alcoholic musicians and stutter-voiced painters wearing untucked, stretched-out concert T-shirts” – who “dribbled down and collected at the store in clusters of bitterness and unfocused fairytale ambition.”
When a homeless man bangs his head in the store and is rushed away in an ambulance, Anthony goes on a quest to find him. On his way, he considers heading to Brigham and Women’s hospital and his pal in X-ray who sells speed after hours. He thinks of stopping at Mystery Train Records, and of his pothead girlfriend and her “gonzo fanzine-reading buddies in Allston.” He ends up in the hospital room of a stranger, and comes no closer to figuring out who he is.
Music filters into many of the stories – Agnostic Front, Cannonball Adderly, Black Sabbath. “It’s tied up with that quest for identity,” says Crouse. “Younger people especially use music as an emblem of who they are…. If there’s anything that unites the characters, it’s that they have this vague sense of their own identity. A lot of times they’re sort of searching for some sort of costume to wear. Their sense of their own selves is so amorphous that it causes huge problems.”
In “Morte Infinita,” the literal costumes – it’s Halloween – both illuminate and further muddle the characters. Thirteen-year-old Kristen and her troubled dad fumble through an angry time by teaming up together watching horror-movie marathons and trick-or-treating. The father’s diminished sense of self translates into an inability to communicate with his daughter: “Her dad was talking about death and divorce and the depressing sound canned tomato soup makes as you plop it into the pan. ‘It’s the little things that will bring you down,’ he said. ‘Happiness requires a certain – I don’t know – indistinctness of vision….’ That was the way he spoke to her, as if she were forty years old and four years old.”
After that Halloween with her father, Kristen comes to realize that there are two types of people in the world: zombies, which make up most of the population, and vampires. Zombies, it’s implied, have that certain indistinctness of vision. Both are monstrous. Both are marginal.
“All of the characters,” says Crouse, “exist on the margins. And some of them are looking for something genuine but all they’re finding is other layers of façade.”
In the novella “Click,” for example, unemployed photographer Jonathan starts a project shooting a sometimes-prostitute named Stephanie. He accumulates image after image of her, yet it’s unclear whether the pictures reveal or obscure identity, both his and hers. “He was making her life more real. Or not,” Crouse writes. “Maybe it was just the reverse – that with each photograph of her he was the one becoming more substantial.” The project inevitably becomes more complicated as Jonathan questions whether he and Stephanie share more than he and his fiancée.
Like the sound of metal on bone, Crouse’s stories are in many ways “too close to real.” But it’s for that reason, for the chilling truths and the dark revelations, that the reader can recognize the light hidden beneath.
“There’s this interesting feeling that I get – maybe you get it, too – sometimes listening to music, like a Leonard Cohen song, or reading a dark story. You have this feeling of exhilaration. And I think it comes from a feeling of recognition, a feeling that, ‘ahh, this person is noticing this thing,’ and the act of noticing it and reporting it is beautiful.”