The San Francisco Chronicle

Review of The Man Back There in The San Francisco Chronicle

Fri, 11 Dec 2009
The Man Back There and Other Stories
By David Crouse

David Crouse’s stories are like tide pools, miniature worlds of wonder that we can study or admire but that are less steady and more fragile than their oceanic equivalents. The care and attentiveness with which he renders characters and their situations are moving, but there is always the lingering danger of the tides – the necessary, constant fear of being remade or revised.

In “The Man Back There,” his second collection of stories, Crouse offers nine new specimens from his tidal worlds, including a 44-year-old twice-divorced man fighting with his girlfriend and her ex, a 92-year-old senator at the end of his career, and a young man discharged from the Army for trying to kill himself after basic training. Mostly men, and almost all pitiable in some way, Crouse’s cast of characters might elsewhere be labeled misfits or failures, but under his gaze they are only men between the tides, people at risk of being dried up by circumstance or flooded by change.

Fear is the force that moves the tides in Crouse’s world. Anxiety and uncertainty create a sinister terror in each of the nine stories. When Barry, the divorced dogcatcher of “The Castle on the Hill,” wants to warn his ex-wife of “the simple fact there was danger in the world,” his warning might seem an empty portent were it not for the double-murder victims he saw the morning before their deaths. And when Denny, the support technician for a video game company in “The Forgotten Kingdom,” haunts his ex-girlfriend Caroline’s house after work “specifically to hurt her, to make her feel a small fragment of what his mother must have been feeling,” the effect might be more benign were it not that his mother is bedridden and dying.

The danger in these stories is real, if only because the characters are convinced of it. Silence and conversation, company or solitude are equally terrifying for Crouse’s characters in their alienation. In one of the collection’s best stories, “The Observable Universe,” Peter, a man suffering from mental illness, drags his older sister Gwen, a multimedia artist, to a science fiction convention, where they study the other convention-goers and try to understand escapism, disguises and fictional worlds. The biologist whose gaze is usually confined to the small, shallow tide pools finally looks back onto the wider, deeper ocean.

The troubled Peter “saw danger in the eyes of strangers on the street” and marvels at how “humor became horror if you let it spin around in your head too much.” Watching, rewinding and watching again the video Gwen made of his breakdown and collapse at one of the convention events, Peter considers the tape a version of his own death. “Was this knowledge,” he asks of the images: “the gasping for breath and the flutter of the eyes as they twitched open”?
The delicacy of this trembling terror, in the experiences of a mentally ill sci-fi fanatic, scorned and burned lovers, and frustrated office employees, is most striking because it never stagnates. The quotidian fears of failure, loneliness and suffering are conveyed with great seriousness and engaging sincerity.

Take, for instance, Crouse’s careful, almost tedious precision in coining adjectives. A woman in “The Castle on the Hill” offers a “you-have-the-wrong-apartment expression” when met by Barry in his animal-control uniform, a boy imitates his brother’s “I’m-too-funny Buddha voice” in “Show & Tell,” and the mother in “What We Own” refers to her husband derisively as “Mr. Cut-the-lawn-twice-a-week.” Not wanting to let the description settle, Crouse is diligent in his construction of sometimes-too-precise phrases. His style becomes like its subjects: hesitant and tentative, damaged and delicate.

“Stories, like people, are fragile things,” decides the discharged, despairing soldier in “What We Own.” And that decision could be a manifesto for Crouse’s work.
His first collection of stories, “Copy Cats,” won the Flannery O’Connor Award, while “The Man Back There” was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize. It is hard to know what O’Connor might have thought of this writer’s work, though McCarthy would probably have sneered at his pedestrian characters and laughed a little at their predictable plights. But Crouse’s stories have a contemporary charm to them: His characters, their fears and the alienating anxiety of his fiction are all common, and even familiar.

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