Circling the Drain: Storiesby Amanda Davis
Enter into the worlds of fifteen young women who, despite their vastly different circumstances, seem to negotiate an eerily similar and unavoidably dangerous emotional terrain. With a visceral bite or a surreal edge, each electrically charged story in Circling the Drain presents women trying to/b>
Enter into the worlds of fifteen young women who, despite their vastly different circumstances, seem to negotiate an eerily similar and unavoidably dangerous emotional terrain. With a visceral bite or a surreal edge, each electrically charged story in Circling the Drain presents women trying to understand the nature of lossof leaving or being leftand discovering that in the throes of feverish conflict, things are rarely what they seem. By turns dark and lyrical, ferocious and playful, these stories are precise, startling, and undeniably original. Reading them is a cathartic, mesmerizing literary experience.
The New York Times Book Review \
In her debut collection of short fiction, Amanda Davis is unafraid to tinker with the form. The 15 stories in Circling the Drain include the autobiographical pieces you might expect from a young writer (Davis is 28), but they also range into the less traveled territories of revenge fantasy and whimsy. At times, the aim seems mainly to experiment with language.
Despite their varying structures, most of Davis' stories have common themes. They concern women who are unlucky in love, or are about to lose something else that is precious -- a sibling, an emotional connection, a sense of self-worth. The heroine of "Prints," which won Story magazine's annual "short-short" contest in 1997, still grieves over her older sister's disappearance 20 years earlier even as she at last comprehends how it happened. In the title piece, a clerical worker falls for an actor and follows him to New York, abandoning "the flat Midwestern landscape of her life." Stunned by his casual betrayal, she responds with a desperate act. The angel that subsequently looms over her hospital bed may or may not be real, but it certainly embodies the author's attraction to the supernatural.
So does "Testimony," in which a young woman named Erin is convinced that her late brother Jack could channel the voice of God. Her account of Jack's short, tormented life is peppered with e-mails from believers in an impending apocalypse: "The time of the Messiah IS AT HAND," writes one. Erin seems to accept these pronouncements at face value, but I was less clear about what to think. Is Erin merely "looking for someone to tell you what to do, to replace your brother," as her psychologist suggests, or should we take her insights seriously? The story is among the longest in the collection and contains no hint of irony -- signs that Davis thinks her heroine might just be on to something.
It is in her six experimental efforts that Davis strives hardest for poetic prose. One of them, "Sticks and Stones," traces the love affair between a woman named Charity, and Dingo, who works at the shoe-rental counter in a bowling alley -- he's a "a tall slick daddy, a hunk of boyish charm who could call a shoe size from across the room." These stories command attention for their verbal riffs but don't engage you as fully as the more conventional works. The strongest of them may be "The Visit," a skillfully handled account of the effects of Alzheimer's on family dynamics.
In the final selection, "Faith: or Tips for the Successful Young Lady," Davis pairs her affinity for voices and visions with the realities of high school. The slimmed-down narrator, whose dieting was induced by a suicide attempt, sees and hears her former fat self urging her to strike at those who drove her into misery. The concept is at least as old as "Carrie" (and as recent as Littleton), yet this take on the perils of high school for fat girls and other misfits seems just about right.
If the details sometimes seem drawn from movies rather than from life (the young woman in "Circling the Drain" arrives in New York via Greyhound bus -- don't all Midwesterners?), Davis nevertheless displays a marked gift for immediacy. In nearly all these stories, even those that exhibit the most self-conscious Creative Writing, things move right along. By combining her talent for narrative with her willingness to take risks -- and cutting some of the fancy wordplay -- Davis might really soar her next time out.
Time Out New York
Read an Excerpt
No one knew in the beginning, not even us. It was only after the fields had been combed and the beds checked under and the basements cautiously explored. Only after pantries were rummaged, barns examined and garages turned upside down. After sheds were emptied and nooks and crannies pestered with light.
It was only after Mama sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee long grown cold and stared at nothing while her lips moved quietly to the Twenty-third Psalm over and over, and Daddy looked ten years older slumped into the parlor couch with a whiskey and three days of beard.
I sat in the corner where they'd told me to, knees to my chest, eyes squeezed shut, and stomach clenched like a fist. I sang to myself or traced patterns on the wall and tried to pull apart what happened.
It was only after they dragged Milo's Pond: thirty-five tired, solemn farmers slopping through, inch by careful inch, hoping to find something and hoping not to. It was only after they'd found nothing.
There was no postcard from a faraway place and no letter with photos of a baby or a husband or a new home. After another empty Christmas came and went with the air thick in our house, the tension like cheese you would have to lean into to slice. After my first kiss and my second, my first day of high school and my last, my good grades and my not-so-good grades, only after it all went quietly by and I left them there, old now and broken in that house.
Years later, when I looked back and tried to understand, I replayed again andagain the strange events of that day my older sister, Lucy, disappeared, and couldn't find a thread at all. I wondered at the way I'd figured things to be. I missed her as I had missed her every day since I turned around to empty air. Since I found the voice that answered my chatter came from no one, that my sister had left no footprints for the last hundred yards.
Spring rains threatened to flood some parts of town that year, and Hansen's field still hadn't dried out. I was a sleuth, tracking back to the final set of footprints in the middle of the field, where they stopped mid-stride then stood, feet together, and pressed down hard, it appeared, in the slightly muddy ground. Her prints were deep, like she'd pushed off. As though she had stopped short, spread her arms and pushed off into the air.
At first I thought I saw her straight above, arms extended, green calico dress fluttering against the breeze. She was as high as the clouds and I craned my neck to see her but then the sky was clear and empty and I wasn't sure I'd seen anything at all. Lucy! I screamed and spun around. Lucy! Lucy! Lucy! The field was a green sheet cake surrounded by a ring of tiny trees and I was its centerpiece, a ballerina, a hollow figurine.
I sat in the corner for three days. People came to the house and brought food. At night I skittered into the kitchen, ate until I was sleepy, then curled up in the corner with a blanket and a pillow from one of the parlor chairs. They spoke in whispers to Mama and Daddy. They refilled Daddy's whiskey glass and coaxed Mama to eat something now, Betty, girl they'll find her soon, they will. Sometimes I got an absentminded pat on the head or a pinch on the cheek but mostly I was left alone. Mostly I was forgotten.
It was only after all the looking that they found the bones. Years later, under a hunter's cabin sixty miles away in Gleryton. Last spring yuppies wanted to bulldoze their new property, wanted to build a nicer place, and in the basement they found the bones of my sister, Lucy, arranged in a careful pattern on the floor. Matched the dental records. Matched the lovely crack in her right femur where she'd fallen, fragile, while ice-skating when she was ten and I was three, too small to skate, but standing on the side of the rink watching my beautiful sister twirl.
The summer Lucy disappeared I was nine and a half. Now I am thirty-three. I live in a house with a dog, a husband and rowdy seven-year-old twin boys. I can't let them out of my sight. I spy on them if I have to, but I like to be near them all the time. I tell myself: maybe I can do something if there is a second time around, maybe I'll be looking in the right direction.
So last April, though Mama was dead and Daddy was in and out of it, we buried Lucy. I was made of tears. You were right, I whispered to Daddy, whose confused blue eyes studied me. She was taken from us, I said close to his ear. Someone took her, you were right. But all I could think was: oh Lucy. Oh Lucy, why didn't you push harder on that ground? I would have helped, if you'd needed it. Why didn't you push yourself off into the blue sky and fly away like I'd always thought you had? And the only answer that slid back to me is this: perhaps I wasn't forgotten at all. Maybe my sister was snatched from Hansen's field as she intercepted. As she spread her arms to save me.
Meet the Author
Amanda Davis was raised in Durham, North Carolina. She was tragically killed in a plane crash on her way to her childhood state where she was scheduled to promote her debut novel, Wonder When You'll Miss Me, published in February 2003. She resided in Oakland, California, where she taught in the MFA program at Mills College. Davis also authored Circling the Drain, a collection of short stories. Her fiction, nonfiction, and reviews have been published in Esquire, Bookforum, Black Book, McSweeney's, Poets and Writers, Story, Seventeen, and Best New American Voices 2001.
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A great leadup to her excellent novel about running away and joining the circus, Circling the Drain runs with quirkiness though not just for the sake of being quirky. The stories are sweet and quick and you'll think about them long after you've finished reading them.
There's something very MFA about this collection. No center to it. Competent writing but ultmately trying on one's patience.