First of all, I would like to say that I bought this book for entirely biased reasons. Michael Parker, aside from being the author of multiple novels and short story collections, was my professor for the Contemporary Novel class I took this semester. I bought The Geographical Cure because I absolutely loved his class. Parker is an incredibly intelligent reader and critic, and his insights into issues as big as structure and as detailed as syntax made me curious as to how he handled those things in his own writing. Though he is mostly a novelist, The Geographical Cure was the first book of his I could get a hold of, and luckily this collection of short stories and a novella did not disappoint.
Set in the south, Parker's stories have a sense of timelessness that mimics the long hot summer afternoons I grew up with. While the stories vary in length, they all seem to take an indeterminate amount of time to read, existing in their own space and time. The writing is very readable and was never a chore. The narration sometimes rambles and occasionally gets too caught up in the thoughts of the characters at convenient times, but it is mostly clear and realistic, and it never gets to the point where I wanted to skip over a descriptive passage. Parker's stories are focused on character and place, and so the thoughts of the characters are central to the development of the plot, and that keeps them from getting boring or holding up the story. Overall I'd say that the stories in this collection wander, but with purpose.
My favorite piece in this collection was the novella, The Golden Hour. When a bus breaks down in a small North Carolina town, it brings together a prim and privileged teacher, an every-man administrator, an old beach-music star, and a young communist guitarist, and forces them to confront their pasts and how they relate to their present. Told in alternating chapters from three different characters, this novella shows Parker's masterful use of voice and perspective. After I read the first chapter I had one perspective on the characters and what was going on. By the time I finished the second, I was forced to question everything I had initially thought. But this wasn't a simple case of an unreliable narrator. Instead, Parker convincingly wrote from the perspectives of two people who didn't see the world the same way, and I came out of the novella thinking that they were both right, in a way. The accuracy and realism with which he created his characters was truly impressive. That and the firm sense of place that they occupied combine to make this novella both completely convincing and totally interesting. As a big fan of realistic and engaging characters, I thoroughly enjoyed The Golden Hour.
The short stories in the book were also very good. They ranged in length, from the short Love Wild, about a man's relationship with a woman and her emotionally challenged brother, to the medium-length The Little Marine, about a boy taken on a trip across the country when his mother runs away with her lover, to the rather long As Told To, in which a man is given his brother's memoir to proof-read and has to confront years of pent-up emotion. Each of these stories is a separate world, with fully-formed characters and a strong sense of place. Though some were more forgettable than others, each provided a reading experience that was thoroughly rewarding. If these are the kinds of short stories Michael Parker writes, I cannot wait to read his novels.
Rating: 4 stars
Michael Parker has a new book coming out in Spring 2013, Five Thousand Dollar Car, which I was lucky enough to hear an excerpt of at a reading earlier this semester. Based on what I heard, I am very much looking forward to its release. Keep an eye out for it!