By Jack C. Buck
Truth Serum Press
Reviewed by Lina Chern
Lists pop up a lot in Jack C. Buck's Deer Michigan. They detail everything from daily errands to the pros and cons of breaking off a relationship, to strategies for surviving loneliness. There are also letters, histories, guides, catalogues, and even math computations wryly designed to quantify love, joy, time, change, and loss. As the title suggests, there is a specific landscape tying these stories together, but the central landscape here is a mental one in which long-gone friendships, missed opportunities, past joys, and disappointments flash by like road markers.
In "A List of Things to do, write, remember, look forward to, and consider," the narrator reminds himself to:
Get cash back from 711 in order to do the laundry across the street.
Get around to watching those movies my friends suggested.
Read an account of the early days of New Orleans, slaves and female French prisoners accompanied by nuns sent to Louisiana, only to be met by knowing Indians in the swamps who weren't buying what whitey was selling.
These improbable leaps between exterior and interior make for one of the standout pleasures of Buck's writing. The "list" goes on to enumerate childhood memories, until the author's voice disappears and the list turns into a story:
My father moving around the house closing a squeaky window, summer rain.
Fall, I liked the smell of the neighborhood burning the leaves out in the street.
That Saturday morning, last summer, when I walked aimlessly seven miles to see what I was searching for—in a back alley, the young boy helping his father paint a garage.
There is a constant back and forth in Deer Michigan between experience and the author's awareness of it. Self-consciousness can be tricky to make interesting, but Buck's prose is sharp and purposeful enough to keep his tone from falling into pure confession. Take, for example, the pitch-perfect "New Old Story," in which the author's voice disappears completely:
In the kitchen he poured another drink, looking at the bedroom that had only a mattress. The bed was stripped and the sheets were bunched beside on the ground. Supposedly the tiles were originally white, he tried warm water and white vinegar, but it had been too long since anyone had tried. As he sipped from the mug, he considered the pattern of the sheets: Her side, His side.
There is no interpretation offered here, but we can already see the bones of a dead relationship in these few sparse details. The story jumps backward to the couple first renting the apartment, signing the lease without even inspecting the place, outfitting it with secondhand furniture, and getting only a few hours sleep every night. Their happiness, even in their shabby digs, is palpable. Then, with no warning, comes the end: "It wasn't until eight months after happily angling the large mattress up the stairs of their apartment did they begin complaining about the bed size being too small for the two of them."
The story paints an entire narrative arc in a few tight brushstrokes—tough to achieve in a piece that takes up less than a page.
Some of the strongest stories from a purely narrative perspective are the longer ones (still, never longer than a few pages), where Buck has more room to let his subjects emerge and drive. For example, in "War Time," the adventures of two teenage boys are chronicled against the backdrop of war and racial violence in 1967 Detroit. We only get sidelong glimpses of these things through the boys' activities: baseball trips to a riot-torn Detroit and neighborhood war games that carefully leave out any mention of Vietnam. The story's flat, reporter-like tone makes the tension hovering in the background all the more menacing.
Another longer piece, "The History of Wood Flooring in East Texas," interweaves tongue-in-cheek regional detail with oddball family lore to portray a couple living in churchgoing sobriety. "During their vows uncle Steve told everyone in attendance of their wedding how he knew Carey was the real prize of church sober bingo night and not the gift card to the church's bookstore they gave out to the other winner." The tone of the story is bright, ironic. Buck stops just short of passing judgement, so that when the darker undertones of the community's piety are revealed at the end, the effect is ambiguous and unsettling.
But the most memorable stories are ones where Buck strikes a perfect balance between detail and commentary, hopping between them seamlessly in short stream-of-consciousness pieces that move with the speed and imagistic clarity of poems. In "For Matthew" he writes:
Today I am thinking of you and Michigan. I remember all the books we collected, stacked on the floor against the wall, and the alley-found mattress angled between the kitchen and bathroom. One weighs one's purchases of necessity is something you would have said. Somewhere in there when the money ran out, we stopped going to the bar, instead we pooled the occasional dollar to go buy a cheap bottle. I don't think it was ever much about the whiskey, it was more about the walks to the store.
Here we see the essence of Buck's writing—the ability to look inward and outward at the same time with equal clarity and artfulness. In "It's as if we never left," he addresses the theme he returns to most often: the passage of time, and the fragility (or maybe the resilience) of love in its wake.
Here is the bowl you put fruit in; here is the bucket of paint to paint the wall like you always wanted to. How come? Why didn't you paint that wall? I bet that wall would have looked real good painted. You should come back I'll drive out and be there in three days to pick you up. This time I won't not say anything, this time I'll say let's get up, let's get after it, it's something we can make together. We can paint those walls together, a color we both like, and it will be like we never left.
"Davis's Time Theorem" faces time even more directly, through the adventures of two friends poised on the brink of adulthood:
When you meet someone special, you want those initial days, weeks, moments, to last almost forever. The best is when we are in those moments and know when it is happening. All the driving and camping has slowed life down some. Whenever we stop at a library for some Internet time, Davis prints off all the articles he can find on how to slow down time, meditation, and the theory of relativity. He has taped them all over the inside panels of the RV. I think he knows I am thinking of moving to Colorado when we get back from this trip. I haven't officially told him yet. At first I didn't understand why he avoided the highways but now I get why he is choosing the long way home.
Deer Michigan is less a portrait of a landscape than a portrait of a mind moving through its beloved landscapes. In "The Evolution of All Things," the narrator imagines planting an artificial Christmas tree in a Michigan forest, and this strange and hopeful image captures perfectly the wanderings of the watchful, sensitive intelligence inhabiting this book: "Perhaps with time it would evolve out of survival, rooting itself like its surroundings, taking on a new identity in life."