Float Up, Sing Down: Stories

  • By Laird Hunt
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • 224 pp.

For fans of the author’s novel Zorrie, these linked tales will feel like home.

Float Up, Sing Down: Stories

It’s a lovely day in Bright Creek, Indiana, with blue skies and fast-warming sunshine after a round of storms, and residents are out and about — gardening, walking, socializing, getting cars to honk for Reagan, enjoying a little teenage romp in the barn — generally living life in early 1980s small-town America. 

Float Up, Sing Down is Laird Hunt’s follow-up to his National Book Award Finalist, Zorrie, and fans of that novel will find much here that is familiar and welcome, like the friendly wave of an old neighbor. Instead of relating virtually every detail of a single life, as in Zorrie, Hunt gives us here a single day in many lives. And though neither Zorrie Underwood nor her long-unrequited love, Noah Summers, walks into any of the scenes, they are a presence nonetheless and a topic of consideration among their fellow townsfolk, several of whom we’ve met before. Principal among these is former sheriff Hank Dunn, whose unsuccessful courting of the title character was featured in Zorrie.

Though this book is labeled “Stories,” the contents read more like a novel in which the character featured in one chapter hands off the narrative baton to the next person in line. A few of these installments are substantial enough to stand on their own, but most of the satisfaction here is in the accretion of details gleaned from the separate vignettes that build toward a larger picture.

For those of us who’ve never lived in a small town, Float Up, Sing Down immerses us in the overlapping circles of connection that can offer both comfort and constriction, and in which everybody knows who you’ve been your whole life. Just like everyone knows Champ Cullen was a great athlete back in high school — tennis and golf — when his Pinto was brand new and as shiny as his prospects. Now, he has the same car, no job, and a penchant for bumming money off neighbors.

Myrtle Kelly may be one of the few who knows Gladys Bacon takes long, elaborate walks through the cornfields when she’s feeling overwhelmed, but everyone realizes “Gladys had chosen to wrap her arms around a man with already depressive tendencies who’d volunteered for Vietnam and come back practically carrying himself in his own suitcase.”

Small towns also illustrate the challenges to the notion of privacy. Modern data-collecting apps have nothing on the tracking mechanisms of people in Bright Creek. Della, Hank’s granddaughter, learns this after having her hidden bike discovered by Sugar Henry’s mother, Tammy, thus uncovering the rendezvous Della and Sugar were enjoying in the barn, leading Hank to have a heart-to-heart with Sugar, and prompting Cubby Rogers to wonder, “Was Della back from running around with Sugar Henry?...Or were they still roaring up the road, burning up the map, being idiotic and beautiful and fifteen?”

Still, some folks are able to keep a thing or two from their neighbors. Turner Davis’ secret is that he has natural talent as a ballroom dancer; Cubby’s is that he wanted to open a restaurant rather than running a garage.

Irma Ray’s secret, involving Eloise in Indianapolis — scandalous in Reagan-era middle America — was sussed out and shared with malicious glee, causing the school principal to fire her and lecture her about the bad end to which she was clearly destined. Hank, whose affection for Irma was as ill-fated as his affection for Zorrie, is still willing to stand up for her. Thus, Irma entrusts him with her final secret.

Since this is the story of one day in several lives, related with much interiority and touching on similar themes, it’s surely no coincidence that the collection’s opening line — “Candy Wilson had forgotten to buy the paprika” — echoes the famous first sentence of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” It’s a cheeky little wink given that the party Candy is prepping for is the Bright Creek Girls Gaming Club’s highly anticipated afternoon of playing Razzle Dazzle, and paprika is crucial to Candy’s famous deviled eggs — certainly not anything Clarissa Dalloway would serve.

That same opening rhythm repeats through several chapter-stories: “Turner Davis needed to get his zinnias in”; “Greg Cullen had a date with destiny”; “Horace Allen could smell the sea.” Indeed, there’s a lulling rhythm in the relating of these lives, all connected through various combinations of time, blood, affection, proximity, and proclivity. Float Up, Sing Down is an invitation to pull up a chair, settle in, and listen.

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.

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