You get the sense, reading this off-kilter collection of stories, that somewhere in the background, jazz is playing. Bop, probably. The plotlines and patter of the characters tootle off every which way, high and low, with now and then a nod to the theme. Sometimes (as in the sax work of Coleman Hawkins, cited in one story) the theme peters out. Such bold flightiness is both the weakness of Colin Fleming’s writing and its strength.
What you don’t get is much grounding in the material world: No red wheelbarrow, not even a blue nude. Again, the effect is musical. For all that we see—a mud hut and a hole in the ground—a story set in Botswana might as well be in the Bronx. The starkness gives these fables a universality or, just as arguably, a lostness in space.
The first story, “Terry from the Cape,” begins on an estuary and recalls Joseph Conrad’s Marlow commencing his tale while afloat on the Thames at sunset, with sails hanging slack and a three-legged lighthouse on a shoal. Fleming allows only that his river “ceases to be a salt water river and gives itself over to the ocean proper.” Nothing to see here. Yet the river does evoke a feel of merging and becoming, a letting go.
Things shape up with the coming of Terry, the first in a long conga line of grotesques. Rotund and wearing clothing from four different Boston sports teams all at once, he’s the consummate radio talk-show caller, the seer who somehow knows what all the jocks are plotting. He floats a rumor that he nearly made the Patriots roster back in 1978. One night, he carries this gig too far, avowing that his “advanced knowledge of baseball metrics” has won him a front-office job with the Red Sox. Moreover, he might “take on Mr. Joshua Slocum” and sail around the world in his homemade boat—a completely unseaworthy craft fitted out with old seats from Fenway Park. The tale hangs on what Conrad termed the romance of illusions: Cornered by his own extravagant claims, Terry does set out on that voyage, in the dark of night and in a fearsome gale. You feel for the guy.
It’s less clear what Fleming is up to in “Hail, the Eye.” This seems the centerpiece story, if the preface is any guide. Again, a grotesque lurks at the heart of darkness—this time a monstrous eyeball, three feet high—along with two brothers and the wife of both of them, a threesome who come to Botswana to scam the locals. This they do by stealing cattle from one village and bestowing them on another, then attributing the good fortune to the costly gems, eye agates, they have sold to the lucky new herders. They get away with it until the Eye, the three-footer, steps in. Is this breakaway organ, in fact, God, in some judgmental guise? Or the brothers’ guilty conscience? The Eye fries their hut, one of the brothers is imprisoned in the hole, and things go on from there.
At times the language feels tossed off too breezily, like a fast-food sack flung from a speeding car. (You wonder why scraps like this weren’t tidied up: “One whom—and this really pricked up my ears—hailed from Gloucester, oddly enough.”) Yet the wayside debris can be overlooked, given the pace and inventive fervor, even joy, of these motley tales. The jazziness plays well in “Bone’s Blues,” about a circumspect tenor who bows out of a quintet just as it’s riding high on his shoulders. “The Dedicated Antiquarian,” told by a languid law student in Boston, opens with an echo of Nabokov:
When you’re engaged to be married, it’s probably not wise to live with a woman who is not your fiancée. I am no romantic acrobat, lithely swinging from one partner to another.
The woman not his fiancée is, happily, a sleepwalking lesbian with whom he shares nocturnal missions to the basement of their apartment house. There they find a storage unit packed with rare editions of Proust and Ambrose Bierce belonging to another grotesque, a “troll-like” mobster who lives on their hall.
The witty “Padraig and Lorcan” seems weirdly prescient. A duo of down-and-out scammers alight in Detroit and set themselves up as “communal organizers,” forthrightly dubbing the folks they organize “vagrants” and “bums.” Hard by the Dime Building they establish a “Decider Wall,” with crushed beer cans spelling out poems and uplifting slogans. Vagrant contributions are invited, literary and—more to the point—monetary. The media glom on, running fulsome reports on the “Transient Pride Wall.”
Poignant, improvised, messy. This is the country of Colin Fleming, the one in which we live.
Parker Bauer is a documentary film writer in Florida.