The Man Back There and Other Stories
David Crouse


In the introduction to David Crouse’s The Man Back There and Other Stories (winner of the 2007 Mary McCarthy Prize), judge Mary Gaitskill writes, “I chose these stories because they made me feel.” However, given the depravity and loneliness, and the penchant toward violence and criminal behavior in Crouse’s work, it seems an odd, almost obtuse, observation—kind of like saying you picked your prom dress simply because it looked so bad on everyone else who tried it on, and not because it’s such a beautiful match with your figure or made from some fabulous material. Of course, that’s a flawed simile, especially once Gaitskill clarifies her opening remark: “By ‘feel’ I don’t mean that I felt a particular emotion, I mean that the outcome of every story here mattered to me. I felt the characters like I would feel a stranger in a room or on a bus with me, that is, with an irrational sympathy more animal than moral in its nature.” In other words, the characters’ pervading depravity and loneliness only makes them all the more human and exactly like the rest of us. A remarkable gathering of short fiction, the nine stories of David Crouse’s second collection don’t just add to his literary resume: They go a long way toward defining it.

The dilemmas Crouse’s protagonists face, while episodic in nature, are often the culmination of a larger series of events spanning a measure of years. “The Castle on the Hill” tells us about Barry, an essentially lonely animal control officer. The story begins with an image recently burned in Barry’s brain: “They had been playing with sticks—sword fighting, thrusting, dodging, and hacking.” The image—of two kids at play as they walk down the street while Barry motors past on his way to work—is something Barry can’t shake because he may have been the last person to see these two kids alive before they were found murdered. Their bodies were discovered at the aforementioned castle, a sight favored by drug addicts looking for a place to shoot up. The castle is metaphor for many things, and one of them is Barry’s inability to heal in the wake of his separation and divorce from Sheila two years earlier. And, once he’s told about the murdered boys by a co-worker, Barry can’t help but think of his own children, now grown, and decides to confront Sheila at the house he used to live in. After all, it’s only Thanksgiving dinner. Why not? But he has no idea what lies at the heart of his confrontation, or why exactly things fell apart in his marriage, let alone why he goes to Sheila’s. He knows his children won’t be anywhere near there, and the trip will hardly appease his irrational anxieties about their safety. An almost ambivalent confrontation occurs when Barry barges in and sits down to eat, and, inevitably, Barry tries to apologize to Sheila for some of the things he had said years ago, insisting he wasn’t himself when he said them: “Maybe that’s why he had come be forgiven, because what was what he had done compared to what had happened today up on the hill?” But that’s only just another stab at the answer, and not the answer itself, and you realize that pretty soon Barry’s the one who needs to forgive himself, if he ever wants to move on with his life.

Despite his simplicity in diction and word choice, Crouse is not a literary descendent of Ray Carver. The tone is bleak, not comic, slick more than anything else, and often stunningly quiet in the face of grave circumstance. The substance of Crouse’s diction is often the struggle of human beings trying to understand their own emotions. No story attempts to engage this theme more than “What We Own,” which offers a snapshot of family dysfunction. Here Crouse uses narrative suspense, the slow pacing by which we learn of each character’s dilemmas, to mirror the unspoken fragility of a family of four. On the surface, it’s obvious that two brothers have problems: The older brother, Scott, has been sent home from boot camp after six months away, and the younger brother, Tim, has taken to a life of small crime in the interim. The parents, who seem nurturing at first, are just as problematic, especially in their preference to ignore the boys’ behavior, not to mention the issues of their own marriage. Instead the parents attempt to make sure their sons are constantly fed, and their problems downplayed. When the two brothers are asked by their father to run an errand one evening before dinner, Tim surprises Scott by taking him to a stranger’s house, which Tim decides to break into. Scott isn’t so much paralyzed or stunned than he is dangerously curious of his younger brother’s capabilities. Scott, in fact, is the story’s narrator: “The truth was, I admitted, I didn’t know what was happening, and I wanted to find out more than I wanted to stop it.” Of course, you know what’s going to happen. The brothers end up in jail, and the father has to bail them out, debating whether or not to tell his wife what’s occurred. What’s more, the event has long-term implications for their family as a whole. But, before they’re caught, Tim reflects on the nature of his crimes to Scott: “...he looked around the room with contempt. ‘I mean, what is all this? I don’t care about things. Nobody owns anything anyway, not really.’” Tim is partly right, but Crouse intends this statement ironically. The least of the brothers’ problems is the objects of other people. In fact, their struggle to take ownership of their lives is what’s at stake because of their inability to understand themselves. And in the end, that’s a perfect summary of the characters of The Man Back There and Other Stories, and the very reason why it’s a book that shouldn’t be ignored.

--Jay Robinson