Luke Goebel. FC2, The University of Alabama Press, $16.95 paperback (184p) ISBN: 978-1-57366-180-5
Despite its billing as a novel, Fourteen Stories…is more a kinetic collection of connected short stories about loss and grief. Using urgent prose, Goebel introduces us to an emotionally damaged, unreliable narrator attempting to reconcile his heart and mind: “Bottom line, I’m suffering from lost love. I’ve waited till I was about thirty to do more than have sex.” Haunted by a woman who broke his heart and raw from the sudden loss of a sibling, the narrator stumbles and grapples to find meaning and to fill the void through throwaway relationships, travel, and peyote. He’s both macho and insecure and not above fantasizing about murdering his betters. Early on the writing runs rough when Goebel forces his hand and allows the oft aggressive narrator too much grandstanding, though things smooth out in “Tough Beauty” and “Apache” where the beauty of the prose does all the heavy lifting: “From the rain would come blanket flowers, Mexican poppies orange across the hills, hibiscus, lupine, wild onion, owl’s clover—names of flowers Apache had said over again, pointing to the dry dead earth on their first rides, blue fiesta, brittlebush, creosote flower, signaling what would go where, as if by the magic of names he could summon colors from the earth’s palette covering the land of dry dust, horses from his very heart, women from his very loins, bones from his bad hand, life from life, simply by naming, so great were his stocks in the whole thing.” Winner of FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Prize for Innovative Fiction, Fourteen Stories…exists on the fringe of convention and thus challenges the reader to adjust. Throughout, the narrator acts as a shape-shifter, plunging in and out of the text with varying degrees of intensity. Readers who enjoy stream-of-consciousness writing will get their fill in the chapter “Out There”, though readers seeking a defining, overall arc best look elsewhere. What holds everything together is the narrator’s sense of urgency and grief, and as an expression of grief Fourteen Stories…is everything readers can reasonably expect: unpredictable and wild, pensive and longing. There is no shortage of wow moments in terms of interesting turns of text, though for every firework herein there exists its less dazzling counterpart. The work is at its best when Goebel plucks the microphone from his narrator’s hand and allows the writing to finds its balance where it often yields a perfect mixture of churning, chugging focus and manic imagination. (September 2014)
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Reviewer bio: Mel Bosworth is the author of the novel FREIGHT. Visit his website at melbosworth.com