Monday, February 27, 2012

"Ugly to Start With," John David Cummings

We have before us, as the title "ugly to start with," might suggest, poetry of the ramshackle.

John Michael Cummings offers 13 slices from the life of a Harpers Ferry, West Virginia teen named Jason.

The West Virginia we have stereotyped into our national conscience is much in evidence in this collection of loosely linked short stories.

We get bits and pieces of Jason life, but not a narrative with arc, resolution, denouement, and all that stuff.

Cummings plays it a beat behind the bass in the events he chooses to depict. His view of the place is not built around milestones and national holidays.

For him the real action occurs in life's interstices, its waiting rooms, in the liminal world where the handful of responses we normally apply are useless.

If the people in these stories (this story?) are poor and quirky, their outlooks premodern, homes corroded and moldy, Cummings renders them, not so much lovingly, as in a straightforward fashion, nothing to be ashamed of and attention worthy.

It's grim. The kid lacks esteem, his brothers are idiots, he gets no love from his father and basically bounds about with other boys lacking the polish and discipline he does. His is an unforgiving universe and real joys are few and far between.

Jason is not an unfamiliar character in American literature: the teen weirdo who wants to be an artist and get the hell out of whatever small town it is they are living in.

His curiosity outstrips the ability of his surroundings to satisfy it, and he gets into things he knows he shouldn't, because there's nothing else to do and loserism is woven into the local fabric.

He is his own light in a dank world, carries hope through the moist and decadent land of mountain hollows the author so skillfully conveys.

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