Blue Suburban Skies

  • Richard Peabody
  • Main Street Rag
  • 133 pp.

In these cinematic tales, a cross-section of humanity wrestles with love, art, loss and getting older in a world full of landmines.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Robelen

“One does not love a place less for having suffered in it.” — Jane Austen

This simple preface to Richard Peabody’s latest set of stories, Blue Suburban Skies, is an apt starting point for the collection, set in, around or deliberately away from suburbia in the U.S.A. Rife with hip references to great rock and rollers, painterly sketches of mountain vistas, and telling insights into the seven ages of man, the tales run in length from a few paragraphs to a few chapters, and swing as widely in mood, narrative style, voice and plot complexity. Yet, despite the broad reach, the hand on the pen is assured, and the craft is unmistakable.

Two of the most satisfying selections are right up front. Peabody opens with “A Great Big Smile on a Little Bitty Girl” and its tortured 30-something guy from Westchester, N.Y., who runs to the Catskills to hide and ends up roped into a laid-back father-daughter-granddaughter family in a story that hop-scotches around the secrets that only parents know. From there we drop into Arlington, Va., for the title story, an amusing baby-boomer-in-midlife-crisis-cum-mini-buddy-on-foot-road-trip rumination on weed, women and song, then and now.

The collection circles back to Northern Virginia, Peabody’s home locale, several times, including in “Gunpowder Divertimento,” a piece that steps out a little onto the high wire of a teacher’s right to privacy versus society’s responsibility to protect and defend, especially when the teacher is an aging, slightly nerdy bachelor and the students are someplace they shouldn’t be.

The author offers some canny takes along the lifespan spectrum as well. “Worst Ways to Die” come out of the mind of a 9-year-old boy using a school writing assignment to make sense of a life in which schoolmates die in bus crashes and the arrival of a very pretty woman in the neighborhood makes everyone a trifle edgy. A sequence of scenes in which teens and tweens swirl in the intoxicating brew of sex and power comprises “Travels in Major Minor” and may evoke a sense of compulsory voyeurism, much like an inability to look away from an accident scene. “Dresden for Cats” finds a young man, lost at turning 30, trying to connect with the ancient family black sheep, a legendary music composer, who, along with his wife, is nearing 90 in exile on an old farmstead on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, surrounded by scores — of cats.

Elsewhere, it is the characters who may stay with readers long after the telling is forgotten: a lunchtime park denizen whose school science lab experiences form a life philosophy (“Still Life with Bunsen Burner”) and a quiet young man with some important things to say (“Stop the War or Giant Amoebas Will Eat You").

There are some curiosities and dips in the book. The series stops halfway for an intermezzo — the shortest story, a slightly enigmatic beach scene, which, like verse, benefits from an out-loud reading. Two other pieces feel a little soft, perhaps in need of editing. Both are meandering love stories featuring male poets and their muses, but their settings and graceful storytelling lift them up to the rest of the pack.

“Wyatt loves the way the early morning sunlight filters through the red crocheted curtains, the way tiny lattice shapes tattoo Mountain Girl’s face, and arms, as she sleeps now, curled up beside him on the stark white sheets. And that moment, as the sunlight bathes her face, reminds him of a Julia Cameron photograph, the filtered light lending a soft focus to her wide forehead, full eyebrows, alabaster skin, and large almond-shaped eyes. Blue eyes. Like his. Why is he always attracted to women with blue eyes?”

Richard Peabody, a longtime champion of writers in the Washington, D.C., area, teaches fiction writing in the Johns Hopkins Advanced Studies Program and edits Gargoyle, a literary journal. His new collection of poems, Speed Enforced by Aircraft, is available now in bookstores and his latest offering in the hot fashion genre “flash fiction,” “King of the Zombies,” is a hoot of a story considerably shorter than this review, which can be found at http://www.wordriot.org/archives/4651.

Blue Suburban Skies whisks readers through a cinematic series of women and men, poets and corporate executives, children and octogenarians wrestling with love, art, loss and getting older (or just old) in a world that appears predictable but is really full of landmines just waiting to blow off a piece of you. Nonetheless, Peabody’s cautionary tales are gentle and heartfelt, populated by skillfully drawn, engaging, memorable folk who have no intention of tiptoeing across the lawn.

Elizabeth Robelen is a member of the editorial board of The  Independent.

 

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