A Patrimony of Fishes

Doug Lawson
Red Hen Press, 1997
ISBN: 1-888996-04-8

review by Chris Lott

Doug Lawson’s debut collection of stories is one of those rare collections that actually lives up to its blurbs. "Wonderful," "exhilarating" and "irresistible" do not do justice toA Patrimony of Fishes, one of the best collections of short fiction I have read in some time. Lawson’s debut, a production of the little Red Hen Press, is a lesson for author and publisher alike… readers of both category will wish that they had some responsibility for this volume.

The power of this collection lies in its consistency and unity. There are fewer weak stories in this smallish batch of stories than one would expect-- particularly from an author’s first collection-- and no real clinkers. The narrators in these stories are sometimes dazed by life, their voices tense with the burgeoning stock of questions that inform them, and sometimes inhabit a strange world on the edge of unreality. Throughout them all, Lawson exhibits an uncanny knack for dialogue that is always realistic, even though the voices are disparate and even abnormal. In the story "Smoke," for example, the narrator thinks about the man he is speaking on the phone, a man who he believes is interested in his girlfriend:

"He’s exhaling a cloud of smoke into the little holes your voice goes into—Walker is into that whole cigar thing. None of the smoke comes out into our phone. I find that interesting to think about, to. What if it did? I am consistently amazed by the ways technology enriches our lives."

And then the man shows up in person to prove the narrator right:

"Walker sits up and takes the cigar out of his mouth. Then he puts it back in and stands up, gets balanced and then comes over. He puts his hand on my shoulder.

Here, maybe this will help, he says. He puts his cigar in my mouth. But then maybe not. I’ll be honest with you, Buster, and tell you that I could in fact care less about what you’re going through right now, but not much less."

The exchange points to something fundamental to many of the characters: few of them are "right" in any sense of the term. They are by turns odd, confused, supercilious, terrified, deluded and unhappy. In short, they are unabashedly human, and Lawson lets them be, even when the urge to editorialize and restructure the events and incidents to make editorial points must have been strong.

Just as it is sometimes ok to let the foibles and confusion of the characters exhibit itself in the actual form of a well crafted narrative, Lawson also treads unafraid of abstraction in the midst of otherwise precise detail:

"You asshole, she says. She says it real quietly. She can see the way his hands get tighter at five and eleven o’clock on the steering wheel. She can feel that long familiar something inside of her, that feeling of something vital leaking away somewhere."

Two of the stories in the collection merit particular attention because I think they are not only excellent in their own right, but they exemplify everything that I found intriguing about the volume.

The first, "Elephant," tells the story of Chuck, a delusional man who has been committed. He is convinced that he was a POW in Vietnam, caged next to an elephant and that he killed a family in a vehicle accident, among other things. Chuck bounces between lucid intelligence:

"What To Say To Boys is something he might never know, Chuck decides. It was so much easier when they couldn’t talk. It’s something somebody should write a book on so then he’d pick it up and know. Talk about motorcycles, it would say. Do not mention dreams."

and outright delusion, such as when he tells some other residents in the facility about the elephant:

"There was one in the cage next to me," he says. "They starved it and made it watch me eat. I got this gruel, I think it was made from dog. It got nothing. Every day it got thinner until it died. When it did they fed it to me through the bars. It made me sicker than I’ve ever been in my life. That’s why I’m in here."

But what really makes the construction of the story astounding, beyond the structure of the story, its carefully crafted indeterminacy, and the author’s insight into the mind of his characters, is the skillful rendering of these two extremes at close quarters, the way they so often are laid out in the real world:

"Chuck realizes his hand is still in the air, has been there while they’ve ben talking. As if he’s trying to call a taxi, something to take him the hell ouf of here. He backs up some but Joshua [his son] comes closer, gets right in his face.

"Go ahead," says Joshua, quietly. "Fuck you."

Then: an arm descends from somewhere else, somewhere distant with the velocity and momentum of a door slammed shut, a heavy, oak door like Chuck’s seen only in dreams. In this dreamspace the air is like a whirlpool, and Bob Dylan’s voice will drown him…"

At one and the same time, Chuck is horrific and sympathetic, delusional and sensical. Like most of the stories in this volume, reality is difficult to discern while the essential truth remains, often seeming oblivious in retrospect.

The title story of the volume, too, illustrates Lawson’s storytelling at its finest. Composed completely in the second person—a mode which I want to like and have unsuccessfully tried myself, but which is almost always an obtrusive, failed experiment— the story "A Patrimony of Fishers" remains engaging and draws the reader quickly and deeply into the events.

To summarize the plot of the story is to miss the point: the idea of the financially successful man (in this case, a New York City real estate agent) returning to his humble hometown and being disconcerted by what he finds is not a new one. But the skill with which the material is handled, together with the trenchant observations, phrasing and details makes this story exceptional.

"You are part Abenaki. Your father’s family has lived here close to forever, though this means little to you other than the seeming irony of your chosen profession: in your eyes you do well something your ancestors did so poorly. When your parents divorced, your mother moved you to New Mexico, and you feel as smooth and white as driftwood."

Like Chuck’s ruminations in "Elephant," Carl, the narrator in this story speaks in ways which are almost surreal and often confusing, but for entirely different reasons. Carl is highly intelligent rather than delusional. His confusion comes from the simple fact that life itself is confusing, and all too often defies description, though he still tries to interpret it.

"You want to tell them both about this deeply buried patrimony you’ve found, blind and silver fishes hanging in the airless dark above you, swimming out of your reach. If you could only grasp and hold the language that would let you. If only you could speak in that secret, whispering language of the dead."

The story reels out in one long sequence of reality and dreams, observations and philosophical musings, which-- like the sequences which make up our lives-- resolve themselves with as many new questions as answers. Even when Carl’s descriptions don’t completely make sense, there is clear intention, like those strange dream moments which are striking in their clarity and which we know mean something, but whose depths we are unable to sound.


A Patrimony of Fishes is populated with stories that you will read once with exhilaration and then, later, a second time with thoughtfulness. The reality in the events can be difficult to ascertain, but the truth in them shines brightly, guiding the readers. Lawson’s craftsmanship puts us fully inside the minds of characters which his insight make complex enough that we can’t completely understand them. These are not fictional characters who resolve themselves into fundamental clarity, nor are they "people we know," they, and this entire collection, are much more interesting than that.

and then

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