Reviewed by Michael Shoemake
I take things much too seriously, sometimes. (Like most writers, I’m the introspective type.) It’s no wonder then that when asked to review Robert Vander Lugt’s Sand, Smoke, Current
, a collection of thirteen compelling and thought-provoking short stories, I settled into three days of pleasant surprises and deep reflections. Sand, Smoke, Current
begins with the story “Onslaught,” previously published in Relief Journal
and awarded their Editors’ Choice for fiction. Here, Vander Lugt masterfully sets the tone and rhythm for each subsequent story:
The storm woke, massed and then slipped over the frozen lake. Clouds, hunched and rolled like a fighter’s shoulders, leaned and sparred across the star-pricked sky. At the beach they stalled, swept over low dunes. Hissing, they infiltrated the steep wooded hills guarding the shore. It spilled east, gathering speed, racing through the stubbled, sleeping cornfields with maniac delight, a thousand hollow stalks quaking like toneless wind chimes. Winter-stiff trees lined the fields, blacker-than-night sentries latticing the sky.
Vander Lugt’s sensitivity to movement and description helps the reader not only to picture the storm, but also to feel it, sense it, even fear it. His descriptive abilities are matched by his ability to draw the reader into the minds of his characters, a wide array of protagonists—some reflecting, maybe grieving, reliving their past; some tough as nails, even heroic; many introspective, questioning, even doubting how they might go on in life.
In the latter half of the collection, Vander Lugt drops into a lower gear and we are drawn into deeper thoughts, as for example in “Altar,” “Memory House,” “DNA,” and “Good Friday.” Vander Lugt is not shy about bringing his own lived reality front and center, but does so appropriately through setting, character, and story, even though at times we may sense that he is speaking of himself in some past situation.
Each story moves with a sense that the earth itself might be rising up inside the souls of men, leaving them, like blades of grass and flowers, flourishing one day but dying the next. The characters move, speak, and reflect a certain vulnerability and at the same time, in the same breath, are certain and determined, even if it is in accepting things as they are.
The theme that links the stories that comprise Sand, Smoke, Current
is clearly psychological. We are introduced and drawn into the all-too-familiar circumstances of a young boy’s jealousy of his best friend’s prowess with girls in “Pretty Black Girl”; of a coming to manhood under the watchful eye of a loving father in the title story, “Sand, Smoke, Current.” We are taken to the places of doubt and the harsh reality of aging and holding on to what can be held onto, even while we are humorously brought into the world of Jacqueline Turner in “Love, Double-Barreled,” in which Jacqueline fights the good fight, the impossible fight, to keep the enemy at bay:
Jacqueline Turner had an eye patch and a shotgun and a front porch. She wore the patch over her left eye and draped her shotgun over her lap, as comfortable as a quilt. She had a rocking chair, too. It waited, its cane seat vacant, reserved for a guest. Jacqueline preferred to survey the world from a chair with steady feet and a straight back, one without arms to hinder the swing of the gun. Her chair sat close to the door and tight to the wall, tucked neat within the morning shadows that cloaked her like a stage curtain. Seated there, she held court from first light until the sun swung high and pushed the shadows to her feet. Then she would rise, her posture bent to the form of the chair and shuffle into the house for a quiet lunch.
Jacqueline Turner is sitting tightly, tucked, holding court, and defending what the enemy will soon consume. Yet the reader can sense through Vander Lugt’s well-crafted, unforced symbolism that the enemy is something much more than a snooping varmint.
Even as all 155 pages of Vander Lugt’s collection are rich in symbolism, his ability to keep each character real and tethered to earth is central. We feel the angst of his characters. The read, even with its quick pacing, is heavy with the weightiness of life. In “Still Born,” for example, Vander Lugt reaches straight into the heart; whether or not you have experienced the loss of a child, this story will bring you to tears in the way good literature can do. Many of his endings, even when they do not surprise, will leave you lingering in poignance verging on reverence. It is as if this author may be pointing to an axiom behind the curtain: In these harsh things, we live.
One might wish for more redemption in the stories, up-beat endings, something of all that joy and peace spoken of in Scripture. Truthfully, there isn’t much joy. It can be said, though, that Sand, Smoke, Current suggests a different kind of joy and peace. As the author explained in a brief interview, after I inquired about the angst that many of his characters present, “That’s what the story was about.” I smiled at that. It reminded me of Paul McCartney’s pithy response to the criticism of the White Album
: “I think it’s a fine little album. . . . It’s varied stuff. . . . It was great. . . . It sold. . . . It’s the bloody Beatles’ White Album
. Shut up.” So be it.
Still, in a collection of thirteen stories, covering topics ranging from aging to death to adultery and the meaning of it all, one should take the read in parts, allowing each story to resonate in its own way. This may be the underlying attraction of a collection of short stories over a novel or novella.
The author ends his collection with “Good Friday,” an appropriate story to end with, given its subtle symbolism and the way it brings into focus all the stories before it. Though Vander Lugt does not push Christianity, the reader may sense that the reality of redemption from the sand, the smoke, and the current is not far away, never completely out of reach. His characters are mortal, doubting, and searching, but never completely lost. And maybe we are all very much like someone in Sand, Smoke, Current—caught up in our own miasma, neither hot nor cold, neither dead nor fully alive. Maybe we are like the main character in “Good Friday” who, before the story comes to a provocative end, finds himself under a building canopy to keep out of the rain. The doors at his back lead to a church inside. A young man opens the door to let him in:
We stood there for a minute or two, the kid’s face beading with sweat, mine soaked by the storm. Neither of us knew what to do. I considered leaving, but there was nowhere I wanted to go. The kid turned his head up the stairs and I saw a suit-clad figure start down with the premeditated steps of an old man. He extended a big hand to me and I shook it. It was meaty, solid and heavily calloused, a hand shaped by heavy work. He looked at the kid and then back at me. He pointed up the steps. We climbed the stairs together and I followed them to a pair of heavy wooden doors. They opened to a church sanctuary draped in darkness. Candle light flickered over a table at the base of the pulpit, dancing light off gleaming silver communion dishes. The congregation finished singing as I slipped into an empty back pew. The older man continued down the aisle. I didn’t see the kid. I sat alone in the pew which was fine with me.
Here, the mundane beat of not being fully present, not being fully alive, is perfectly rendered.
All said, Sand, Smoke, Current presents itself with gravity. The reader may not have his spirits lifted. Yet he may receive something just as rewarding, the gift of good literature from a new and aspiring author. Technically precise in structure, Vander Lugt’s beginnings will grab you, his middles will keep you, and his endings will change you. He is masterful in presenting the deeper hurts, fears, and strivings of places we all know and understand.
------------------------- Michael Shoemake is a regionally-based author writing stories about Texas-based characters. His work has appeared in Relief Journal's volume 6.2 and volume 7.2 Sand, Smoke, Current, by Robert Vander Lugt (Wiseblook Books, 2013)
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