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Circling the Drain: Stories

Circling the Drain: Stories

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by Amanda Davis

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          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


          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 loss—of leaving or being left—and 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.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
“A well-guided tour of scarred souls who’ve witnessed terrible things, and surprisingly, found odd bits of beauty in them.”
Chicago Tribune
“Mesmerizing . . . compelling . . . This collection, fresh, odd, and frightening, makes Davis a writer to watch.”
Mary Elizabeth Williams
Amanda Davis writes gently, even poetically, about extraordinary brutality. She has a distinctively creepy, noirish sensibility...a well-guided tour of scarred souls who've witnessed terrible things, and surprisingly, found odd bits of beauty in them.
The New York Times Book Review \
Williams Mary Elizabeth
Amanda Davis writes gently, even poetically, about extraordinary brutality. She has a distinctively creepy, noirish sensibility...a well-guided tour of scarred souls who've witnessed terrible things, and surprisingly, found odd bits of beauty in them. —The New York Times Book Review
Village Voice
Magical...it's amazing how deep Davis's stories run. She creates women with hearts so big they can barely see the faults of the men standing in front of them. Inside Davis's tightly sketched women's world...girls, in the face of love, are tragicomically powerless. It's their willingness to be vulnerable that makes them heroines.
Polly Morrice

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.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Davis debuts with this often exciting but uneven collection of 15 stories, offering glimpses of women struggling, often in vain, against the magnetic pull of bad men and low self-esteem. At times Davis's prose displays an elegant acumen; elsewhere, it relies unconvincingly on social and literary conventions: "women [are] dormant until rescued by powerful strangers like the cowboy, who appeared to them with magic kisses... to wake them from their sleepy lives." Except that the cowboys are no heroes. Rather, they are con artists, arsonists, philanderers, and often absent. In one of the strongest stories, "Red Lights Like Laughter," a couple stuck in a hotel room during a blizzard seem ordinary until the violent tumult they are running from is revealed. Davis beautifully contrasts the freezing weather and the stuffy, shabby room with the narrator's conflicting emotions for her charming, murderous boyfriend. In "The Very Moment They're About," a sliver of time is cherished on the last night of camp as a teenage couple experience the fading moments of their childish innocence. Davis can aptly illuminate the mysterious connection between men and women, but she also tends to resort to the clich of the woman scorned. In the title story, a woman finds her actor boyfriend in bed with a man, so she jumps off the Williamsburg Bridge, because "there was nowhere to go," a sentiment that resurfaces often. Most of the female narrators are frustratingly dependent on controlling men who remain inscrutable to the reader. "Chase" is a self-conscious, overwrought fable about a girl who kills a boy's horse to redirect his love to herself. "Faith, or Tips for the Successful Young Lady," however, is a magnificently haunting tale, interspersed with Miss Manners-type guidance, about a formerly overweight teenager who cannot eradicate her demons until the image of her former self stops (literally) following her around. This story showcases Davis's talent, holding out promises of an interesting career for this new author once she settles into a stronger, more confident literary voice.
Library Journal
In this dark debut collection of stories about young women suffering loss and alienation, Davis frequently employs the techniques of surrealism and magic realism. But even in the more realistic tales, her characters behave in such an extreme manner that the reader's sympathy may be hard to reach. In too many of the stories, a woman whose lover has left her becomes suicidal or imprisons herself in her apartment for several days, forgetting to bathe. In "Sticks and Stones," a woman falls in love with a shoe fetishist, and in "Tips for the Successful Young Lady" a desperately unhappy high schooler is literally haunted by her former fat self. While Davis has a nice touch with imagery, extraneous words and sloppy construction undermine her prose. More careful editing would have resulted in a stronger voice. Though there is much potential here, only comprehensive collections need purchase.--Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Idaho Lib., Moscow Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Eve Claxton
This is a collection of stories in which all the protagonists are young women without extracting some kind of statement on what it means to be a woman finding her way at the end of the century. Davis's stories repeat a central theme-her women ae helplessly drawn into destructive relationship with charismatic, problematic men and are left feeling either trapped or alone.
Time Out New York
Vanessa Grigoriadis
Davis delivers the stuff of good short stories: passionate writing, empathetic characters, themes of alienation and loss, and beautiful language that keeps stinging long after you read it.
New York
Kirkus Reviews
A debut collection of 15 stories, mostly portraying the sadnesses of troubled young women coping with losses of one kind or another. The women who tell these tales are often misleadingly sophisticated and highly vulnerable, like the majority of clever adolescents. The narrator of "Prints," for example, is haunted by the disappearance of her sister Lucy, who as a little girl vanished without a trace. The mystery remains unsolved for 23 years, until an accidental discovery offers Lucy's family the answer they had refused to accept for decades. In "Red Lights Like Laughter," a teenaged girl agrees to her shady boyfriend's plan to take his revenge upon her disapproving mother—not fully understanding that he means to carry things much further than he'd let on. In "Testimony," Erin is haunted by her dead brother Jack, a disturbed child who spoke prophecies and claimed to have visions. There's also a strain of cowboy envy here that seems a bit out of place: "Chase" describes a young woman in love with a cowboy who cares more about his horse than about her, and "Fairy Tale" portrays the moment in which another woman falls in love with a cowboy she meets in a honky-tonk bar. "Circling the Drain" is an account of a doomed romance between a love-struck girl and a boy who turns out to be homosexual, and "True Story" is a domestic tale of life with a demented roommate. Davis's best piece is "Faith or Tips for the Successful Young Lady," about a schoolgirl's desperate attempts to return to normal adolescent life after her release from a mental institution (where she lost 50 pounds). Ungainly and shy, she is haunted by an obese ghost who stands as her evil doppelgänger. Somewhat crudeand sketchy, but original and full of promise: a good start.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Edition description:
First Perennial Edition
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.46(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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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Circling the Drain 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There's something very MFA about this collection. No center to it. Competent writing but ultmately trying on one's patience.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago