Saturday, February 5, 2011

Richard Spilman The Estate Sale

I just finished reading Richard Spilman's story collection The Estate Sale. Richard was my thesis advisor at Wichita State when I was in its MFA program from '04 to '07, but I don't think I'm biased in recommending this collection. These stories are as good as they get.

Maybe what will strike readers most is the clarity with which these stories convey character. 

Some of the most wonderful moments happen in the stories that explore the hearts of youths. The second story in the collection, "Where the Spiders Sleep," gives a child's point of view in an abusive household. The anguish and confusion are tangible, and details and settings are haunting, as are the recollections of a narrator in "Pieta," also from a difficult home, who in retelling events around her father's murder explains the wonder of her life after her mother, coming into money, leaves the abusive father: "My senses blossomed as if they'd been brought out of the basement into the light, and I had wonderful dreams." Another story, "Bella," also conveys the p.o.v. of a youngster, where the bruises on peaches (the delicious secrets of the imperfect) echo the nature of a store owner, named Bella, as well as the nature of what her kind of store meant to towns in the first place. 

Stories about adult frustration and redemption are likewise moving. There's a guy who's just been robbed in San Francisco who's unsettled enough to wreck a party and a relationship in the opening story, "Robbery." Surreal moments of passersby laughing while the first-person narrator's being held up are vivid, as are the scenes depicting other kinds of ways the character's been robbed. There's an artist in "Where He Went Under" who witnesses a man drown just beyond where he was painting--and the story details how that death births his artistic method. "Rain Forest Crunch" is a wonderful story about a young man with a lot of hang ups. I mean, how can you argue with the opening lines? "He is young and has many opinions. Everything sucks..." Yet our central character finds intimacy, and through that reflects, and undergoes change. "Spice" is another story that shows a character's adjusting to a relationship with understanding and love. In a sort of honeymoon trip to New York, paid for by an uncle, a husband realizes he has more in common with the beer-drinking sports fans in a local bar than the more "cultured" people his wife can also befriend. "Unclean Spirits"--wow! The best exorcism in fiction! 

The later stories in the collection mostly deal with older or elderly characters. An old woman in "Pie" staves off neighbors with an obsolete rifle make so that cherries on a wind-blown tree (blocking a lane of the road) can ripen. A son holds the hand of his dying mother in the poetic "Speaking in Code." And the story "The Estate Sale" is an extremely moving story about a reverend after suffering strokes, whose belongings are being sold around him, because he needs to live in a retirement home. This work is a vivid and heart-wrenching story about confession, redemption, and bravery in the face of growing old and changing. Language and details recreate the sometimes confused viewpoints of the reverend, and who couldn't cheer for an old guy with enough conviction to stab a jerk's hand with a pen? Go, Reverend! The collection's final story, "Light," is likewise heart-wrenching. We get the perspectives of an assisted living nurse and caretaker who may have developed lupus from the stress of her job, and we get an elderly woman who, though she's losing control in certain ways, entertains vivid images filled with detail, such as the final lines:

A shaft of light lanced through the seam where the curtains met. She made a cup of her hands and filled them with it. Dust motes danced like snow in a Christmas ball. Sunlight, she noticed, was not uniform. It could be hotter here than there, and if you ran your hand through it, it rippled like water. Clouds of insects swarmed above a stubble in a field, and a creek angled around a bow-shaped cutbank with cattle grazing on the far side. The air was rich with the smell of newly cut alfalfa.

Highly recommended, and Richard may be the main reason I recommend any member of our writing community looking for a good MFA program to consider Wichita State's.


Anne said...

Justin, I am considering applying for an MFA at WSU. Are you still in town? Sounds like you would recommend it. I am a "mature" student.... remember the grad program of the late 1970s (when I was an undergrad here) when it was truly awesome, but don't know any of the current faculty so am trying to research them a bit.

justin nicholes said...

Sorry for the late reply! I would recommend it. It's still a great place and a damn good department. (Not to mention a fun town to get a beer in with writerly friends.)

Sorry--I haven't been in Wichita since '07.