Inner Battles at Michigan's Edge
NIGHT DRIVING by John VandeZande, New York: Morrow, 192 pp., $16.95
THE Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan is not famous for many literary wonders, except maybe ``Anatomy of a Murder,'' by Robert Traver. With this premier collection of short stories, John VandeZande does for the UP what Eudora Welty did for the South.
Like Welty's Southern short stories, VandeZande's stories are little capsules of life that make you feel as if you're there.
Life in the UP is difficult at best. Coping with long, terrible winters and poor economic conditions is a struggle. Combine that with an inherent loyalty to the utterly beautiful, pristine land and you live a duality that constantly splits and tears.
VandeZande's stories are tales of inner battles. In a masculine voice alive with energy and power, he portrays young men who are bound to the land, caught up in daily survival, and called by the thrills of a more prosperous life if they leave.
These young boys, with their Chevys, girls, and pool halls, are caught up in the boredom of summer in a town too small to provide worthwhile activities. The scenes bring back memories of the 1950s. VandeZande dwells on the emotions of these youngsters and how each comes to terms with growing up.
``Daring'' is a tale of 15-year-olds hanging out, challenging one another to do something more brave and more wrong to lessen their boredom. The narrator speaks directly to Aaron - the new kid in town - trying to get him to burn the lifeguard's chair out from under her. ```Because you're the daredevil ... Burn her down if you dare.' His eyes held mine, and though no tears came, they asked why in a way that I understood. This time I dropped my eyes.''
``Road Kill'' tells of three salesmen traveling home from a business trip. Their car hits and critically injures a deer. One of the men kills the deer to put it out of its misery.
VandeZande plays upon the dichotomy of the stereotypical, unfeeling salesman in relation to a man who compassionately kills a deer and cries in the aftermath. ``He knelt there for a few minutes with his head down. When he stood up with the deer's hind legs in his hands, Kessel's eyes were wet. He was dragging the deer backward toward the woods when I got out of the car.''
VandeZande tenderly narrates stories about fathering.
In ``The Sound of the Layfayette Escadrille,'' a young boy watches his father struggle with doing jobs he hates just so he can provide for his family, all the while dreaming about the life he could have had if he had been able to fly with ``the American Flyers who flew with the French in the First World War.'' The boy sees his father accept his life for what it is.
Many of the stories bring back memories of visits to grandmother's house. In ``The Sound of the Layfayette Escadrille'' the boy visits his grandmother's house and speaks of her and the house she chose to live in:
``She insisted on still living here in the house Grandfather had built for her ... where she had lived for 67 of her 81 years. In this house, she had raised her children and eventually outlived them - and finally her husband too.''
Occasionally, the stories are laden with too much description, the author's own emotions monopolizing the reader's response.
``Coming Ashore'' suffers in this way. It is a story of three generations going on a Lake Superior fishing trip. Their boat capsizes and the grandfather drowns. Kellan must decide whether to save his own life or attempt to swim to shore with his son, Paulie, on his back, knowing the odds of making it are not in their favor. ``Kellan would think of it as a mindless conspiracy: Grandpa's shouting that he had a strike, Paulie's pitching toward Grandpa's side to see, the renegade wave moving under the bow.''
Superficially, this is a man's book. The stories are about men's feelings and activities.
But in fact these stories delve deeply and sensitively into complex emotions and issues, providing warmth and tenderness that speak to anyone.