Destination Known

Destination Known

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by Brett Ellen Block

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Imagine riding down an empty road filled with enough sharp turns and switchbacks to make predicting the path ahead impossible. Imagine night has fallen, clouds of fog swirl across your windshield, and you’re driving at maximum speed. Imagine the road suddenly stops. . . .

Now imagine reading Brett Ellen Block’s debut collection of short stories. Her

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Imagine riding down an empty road filled with enough sharp turns and switchbacks to make predicting the path ahead impossible. Imagine night has fallen, clouds of fog swirl across your windshield, and you’re driving at maximum speed. Imagine the road suddenly stops. . . .

Now imagine reading Brett Ellen Block’s debut collection of short stories. Her fiction is taut and moody, fast-paced yet self-reflective. Her characters are unusual or unusually motivated, yet ordinary enough to be thoroughly familiar. Her situations are breathless, set at either a moment of awakening or at a time just before disaster strikes. And her stories end shockingly soon, a split second before the car smashes into the detour sign.

Block, the winner of the 2001 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, delivers twelve stories connected through images of cars and through what is left unsaid. From Margaret, a harmless, middle-aged woman who witnesses a hit-and-run and then inexplicably chases down the perpetrator, to Adrienne, who steals her boyfriend’s car only to run out of gas in the middle of the desert, Block does not bring packages with neatly wrapped endings. Rather, her characters seem driven—placed at meaningful points in their lives even if they do not yet realize the potential impact of these moments.

There is Franklin, a retired box-maker, who must discourage his landlord’s son from entering the porno business, Christine, who discovers her runaway niece while driving an ice cream truck, and James, who decides to save the life of a homeless man while stuck at a bus stop in Newark. This collection of characters represents different segments of our fractured culture. They could be people we have known—members of our family even—whose actions we cannot comprehend, or people we pass on the street each day but do not take the time to notice.

Block forces us to notice, to imagine what it is like to live with an uncertain future. She forces us to pay attention, even as we grip the steering wheel with white-knuckled anticipation as we careen down the dark paths of her creation.

Brett Ellen Block is a New Jersey native whose stories have appeared in The Sonora Review, The Mid-American Review, The Red Cedar Review, and various anthologies. Past winner of the Hopwood Prize and the Haugh Prize, she lives in Los Angeles where she is at work on her first novel.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Block's debut short story collection is an odd, disturbing affair, full of low-life characters and down-and-out wanderers who find themselves swept away by bizarre and calamitous circumstances that threaten their shaky hold on stability and security. The title tale is a perfect example of Block's primary ironic motif, telling the story of a woman who goes searching for vengeance after being robbed, only to end up threatening an elderly woman who is trying to conceal a minor hit-and-run parking violation. The motif surfaces constantly, and convinces only intermittently. In one strong entry, "The High Month," a woman steals the classic car her boyfriend seems to value over her love, only to find herself in dire circumstances when she runs out of gas near a seedy bar and must rely on a drunken patron for help. Bus stops, adult book stores and down-and-dirty road trips constitute the backdrops for other stories, although Block does range abroad in a pair of stories in which Venice and Marrakech provide the more exotic scenery. Block has a way of turning seemingly conventional situations upside down, but the desperate, edgy state of virtually every central character begins to grow monotonous as the collection progresses, and the dreary settings wear thin after a while as well. Block's writing is something of an acquired taste, but readers interested in exploring life's dark, dangerous corners will find an intriguing array of ideas and situations here. (Oct. 30) Forecast: Edgy, clever jacket art, a blurb by Charles Baxter and the fact that Block won the 2001 Drue Heinz Literature Prize in 2001 for this collection should attract select readers. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Winner of this year's Drue Heinz Prize for short fiction, Block's strong debut collection of a dozen stories offers a world on wheels, full of random encounters and uncertain outcomes, all filtered through working-class sensibilities. In the title piece, a woman ill-at-ease in a new city after breaking up with her boyfriend watches from her car as someone smashes into a vehicle parked near her. She gives chase, overtaking the car-basher only to find another woman more confused than she. A young guy living in a boardinghouse in his hometown, car- and jobless, gets a lift and a hand from an older man down the hall to go home and put up new wallpaper for his mother, in "Edith Drogan's Uncle Is Dead," but he has to relive some painful memories and listen to a sad story from his coworker before they're through. The protagonist of "In the City of the Living" is off to college in Memphis, escaping the Outer Banks island where he was raised, but the friend he's hitching a ride with, and his friend's brother-losers both-turn the trip from a promising fresh start into something destined to drag everybody down. With much of the gloom but a shade less doom than the hard-bitten noir fiction these stories resemble, the moodiness, and pervasive sense of a generation at odds with its future, make Block a writer worth watching.
From the Publisher

“The stories in Brett Ellen Block’s new collection are motion-blurred as snapshots taken from a moving car. . . . Block catches the transients, drifters, and runaways that populate her best stories in mid-flight, when a moment’s hesitation or a step in a different direction makes all the difference in the world.”

New York Times

“Block’s strong debut collection of a dozen stories offers a world on wheels, full of random encounters and uncertain outcomes, all filtered through working-class sensibilities. . . . With much of the gloom but a shade less doom than the hard-bitten noir fiction these stories resemble, the moodiness, and pervasive sense of a generation at odds with its future, make Block a writer worth watching.”

Kirkus Reviews

“What’s most satisfying about the stories in the pace. These stories move. We don’t have to linger in long, drawn-out sagas, but are immersed in the stories the same way we experience dreams that we can’t really place, can’t really say if they were true life experiences or just nocturnal visions.” . . . hopefully, Block is at work on another book, because unlike her characters, she’s a writer who displays promise.”

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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Product Details

University of Pittsburgh Press
Publication date:
Pitt Drue Heinz Lit Prize Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Chapter One


IT WAS NOON and Margaret was sitting in her car in a parking lot watching a teenage boy dig through a dumpster. She had convinced herself that by the time he found whatever he was looking for she would be able to start the car and drive home. Ever since her apartment had been robbed, she'd begun having these moments where she would freeze up, like a window jammed in its frame, and today thirty minutes had already slipped by in that way. This time it started while she was in the hardware store. She had laid five different types of locks out on the counter and the clerk, who mistook her anxiety for indecision, had told her, "Just buy two. Hell, buy three. It'll make you feel better." Margaret bought all of them.

    The July sun beat down on her car, and even with the windows open the heat was getting to her. Patches of tar on the parking lot were glistening in the sun. The teenage boy she was using as a sort of timer had fished a sandwich out of the dumpster and begun to eat it. He was wearing a black T-shirt and a dog collar around his neck. As he ate, he leaned over the rim of the dumpster casually, as if what he was doing were perfectly normal.

    No matter how bad things got, Margaret thought she could never resort to something so depressing as searching a dumpster for a meal. But as she watched the boy eat, she considered that it was more a matter of circumstance. If she had ever guessed that she was going to be robbed, Margaret probably would have said that, though shaken and put out, she would manage. Because that was how she was, alwaysable handle whatever was thrown at her. Months earlier, she had picked up and moved out of her boyfriend's apartment the morning after she overheard him making plans with another woman on the phone. Without a second thought or a glance at a map, Margaret drove north and settled in the first city with a name that she liked. She'd hoped that after a certain number of miles all of the painful memories and doubts racketing through her mind would fade, like a radio station she'd lost by driving out of range.

    Leaving the town where she had lived for the last five years was like getting off at the wrong exit on a highway; she didn't know what to expect. Surviving the breakup as well as the move had proven to her that she could cope with almost anything. However, she soon realized that she had overestimated herself. In the few days since the robbery, she had barely slept. But it wasn't simply because she was afraid. The shock of her own reaction was keeping Margaret up.

    She heard an engine start at the other end of the deserted parking lot and turned. Then she saw a wide, blue Buick peel out in reverse and smash into the station wagon that was parked behind her. There was a crackle and a flourish of glass from the wagon's headlight. The grille had caved in, the bumper was bent, and the front corner was a pointy snarl of metal. Margaret watched as the driver took off away from the accident, jumping the curb as they sped out of the lot. She craned over her headrest but couldn't see the person in the front seat.

    They didn't even get out, she thought. They didn't even stop.

    The one time Margaret had hacked into a car, she left a note even though she hadn't made a scratch. For whoever owned the station wagon, there would be no note and, like her with the robbery, they would never know who was responsible for what happened. Margaret wasn't sure who she felt worse for.

    The night she had arrived home to find her television, jewelry, and some of her furniture missing, Margaret got her first taste of a feeling that was worse than fear—uncertainty—and it felt like mud in her heart. When the police arrived, they were of little comfort or help. They basically had only two questions for her: did she have the serial numbers for any of the missing items, and could she think of anyone who could have stolen them. The answer to both was no. With that, they explained to her how unlikely it would be that they would ever find the burglar. The chances were slim.

    Sometimes Margaret envisioned her furniture being set up identically somewhere else. It was almost amusing, like some sitcom-type practical joke, but not knowing who took it, who was in her apartment, was truly and profoundly unsettling. As a child, she had fallen down a flight of stairs, and the feeling was the same. One minute she was at the top of the steps, the next she was on the floor. Like her unpredictable loss of balance, the world could change without warning, and to Margaret that had always seemed unfair. Each night, her thoughts whirled uncontrollably. She couldn't look at any of her possessions without wondering if they had been touched. The question of who had done it loomed like an open door inside her mind, one that she could hear being kicked in the same way her apartment door had been. Finding the thief seemed to be the only way to close it, but what worried Margaret most was that no one ever would.

    After her boyfriend Daniel had realized that she'd caught him, he said everything he could to try and make her stay. He talked continuously, pleading and explaining, and his words overwhelmed her, like a string of waves breaking on her head. She lost all of their meaning. Margaret found herself demanding details, where Daniel had taken the woman and what they had done, anything she could picture and hold on to. In the end, though, the truth—the brand of wine they drank and the spot on the couch where the other woman sat—didn't help Margaret. Those images became as vivid as her own memories, and they haunted her. It was like she'd been scraped raw, inside and out.

    Margaret stared across the parking lot at the wrecked station wagon, then started her engine. The Buick hadn't gotten far up the street. She strapped on her seat belt and hit the gas.

    Before she knew it, Margaret was only two cars behind the Buick and gaining. Speed blurred everything in her peripheral vision. The hot air rushing in through the windows buffeted her skin. Margaret couldn't believe what she was doing, that she was actually chasing the person. Who knew what they might do? She wouldn't let herself think that far. She ran the scene in the parking lot back to herself only to find that she'd totally forgotten about the teenager in the dumpster and why she'd been waiting for him in the first place.

    After the robbery, Margaret felt as though she'd just been awakened out of a deep sleep. Every noise was shrill, excessive. The sun was too much for her eyes. She thought she could feel every thread in her clothes and the weight of air on her head. The hard, new edges of the world only made her feel more out of place. She missed her old town, if only because it was thoroughly familiar. People used to recognize her when she went to buy coffee or pick up a newspaper. Her friends were unable to make the long trip to visit, and even after a few months Margaret had barely met anyone in the new city. The move had begun to seem more like a step down than a fresh start.

    One of the cars separating Margaret from the blue Buick turned onto a side street. She flashed her brights at the van in front of her, then it changed lanes, clearing the way. Margaret gunned the engine and laid on her horn for a full minute. There were other cars on the road alongside her, but she didn't bother to check if anyone was staring. She didn't care if they were.

    The Buick showed no signs of slowing. Margaret tailed closely for another mile. She was anxious to see what would happen. She wanted to know what she would do. She wasn't sure. Fence posts were hurtling by, and the weeds behind them, which had been burned to blond by the sun, blurred into a yellow glow. Margaret took a deep breath and leaned into the steering wheel like she was driving through a snowstorm.

    The Buick finally slowed and pulled onto the shoulder near a field. Dust rose behind its tires. The mangled, unhinged fender kept swinging after the car had come to a stop. Margaret threw her car into park, causing her wheels to grumble against the dirt. She tossed off her seat belt and sent it reeling backwards, thinking only of the faceless thief carrying her furniture away in the night.

    As Margaret sprang out of her car, a series of possibilities came to her like headlines: Woman's Body Found on Side of the Road; Woman Hit by Car. Margaret knew that her thin and unimposing body probably would not match or threaten whoever was inside, so she grabbed her purse and held it in front of her as though it concealed a gun. That was all she could think of, and, like all she had done so far, it seemed somehow reasonable.

    Margaret approached the Buick slowly, her footfalls audible on the gravel. When she got to the driver's window, Margaret saw a pair of hands raised in surrender. The hands belonged to a woman in her seventies with a narrow head and short, tightly permed hair. The woman's blouse hung off her bony shoulders and was tucked into a pleated skirt. She looked up at Margaret fearfully and asked, "Are you with the police?"

    "No," Margaret said. "Not really."

    The woman frowned, confused. "If you're not with the police, then what do you want?"

    "I saw you," Margaret said. "I saw what you did."

    "I don't know what this is all about, but...." She let the sentence trail off, though her expression gave her away.

    "Yes you do," Margaret declared. Her voice sounded odd to her, like an angry child's. "You hit that car in the parking lot, then you ran. I was there."

    "I don't have to listen to this nonsense. I'm leaving."

    Margaret couldn't let the woman leave. "Wait," she shouted, pretending to take hold of the imaginary gun.

    The woman froze, apparently believing that she indeed had one. Margaret was unsure of what to say next, but unable to move.

    The woman touched her keys and Margaret forced her hand deeper into her purse, saying, "Hey. Stop it. Take the keys out and put them on the seat."

    "You're not with the police. You can't—"

    Margaret pointed the imaginary gun at the woman.

    "All right. All right. Please, just don't hurt me," the woman said, removing the keys from the ignition, then placing them on the passenger seat. She was afraid now'. "I just don't know what all the fuss is over."

    "What you did is illegal. It's against the law."

    "I was going to go back."

    "Then why were you going in the opposite direction?"

    "Well, what are you going to do, put me under citizen's arrest?"

    "No," Margaret said slowly, and the woman drew back. Then Margaret realized how menacing she sounded. That wasn't the effect she was going for, but she was too nervous to take her hand out of her purse. Her wallet was digging into her wrist, but she didn't dare shift it. Her shirt, which was already soaked through with sweat, was sticking to her skin. With the sun beating down on her, the wet material felt like a hand on her back.

    "Look, I'm sorry, but I didn't mean to hit that car," the woman said. "I pushed the wrong pedal. It was a mistake. That's all."

    "The wrong pedal?" Margaret couldn't believe her ears.

    "I said it was an accident."

    "Exactly. That's why insurance companies call it that. Has this happened before? I mean, do you choose the wrong pedal on a regular basis?"

    The woman put her hand to her chest, insulted. "My Lord, no. Never. I don't drive that often."

    "Do you have a license?"

    "Yes, I do have license, thank you very much. It's just that my husband was the one who usually drove."

    With that, the woman's face changed, her expression darkened. She looked tired, almost puzzled. Margaret instantly realized that the woman's husband must have died.

    "But I didn't know what to do," the woman pleaded. "I saw what a mess that car was after I hit it, and I just drove away. I don't know why. I don't even know where I am now. I'm just driving, and I don't know where."

    The woman was talking to Margaret, but she seemed to be speaking to herself. She gazed at the dashboard and put her fingers to her mouth, stunned by her own confession.

    Margaret took her hand out of her purse. The blood that had been rushing through her body seemed to come to a full stop. She hadn't considered the possibility that the woman wouldn't know why she left until she said so, the same way Margaret couldn't conceive of being robbed until she saw the dust rings and the wear marks left on her carpet after her things had been stolen.

    The road in front of them was clear, but when Margaret looked back, there was a patrol car coming toward them. The woman saw it in her rearview mirror and gasped. She turned to Margaret with plaintive eyes. There was no time for Margaret to get back into her car.

    The patrol car coasted to a stop, and the officer on the passenger side rolled down his window. Margaret could feel the cool air from the air conditioner. "Flat tire?" the officer asked.

    Neither Margaret nor the woman answered.

    "Is there a problem, ladies?"

    Margaret leaned back, putting her body in front of the crumpled corner of the woman's ear. She could feel the officer following her with his eyes. The woman was silent, a stiff figure at the edge of Margaret's vision.

    "No, sir," Margaret said. "I was giving this lady directions. She was lost. But I straightened her out. She knows where she's going now."

    The officer studied them for a minute. Standing there between him and the woman's damaged car, it became clear to Margaret that she would never get back her chairs or her necklaces or the tiny television she had saved her money to buy. And she would never know who took them. The hazy face of the thief that she kept in her mind disappeared like a soap bubble bursting midair, then all that was left was the dull impression that she was missing something.

    "All righty then," the officer said, raising his window. "You two have a good day now."

    "Thank you, sir," the woman said, visibly relieved.

    The patrol car pulled away, and Margaret stepped back from the Buick. As she did so, a string of cars shot past her, sending gusts of wind through her hair and clothes. She shut her eyes, but she knew that the woman was watching her, the same way she had watched the boy in the dumpster, waiting for the moment when she would be able to leave.

    "I suppose I should thank you," the woman said, though she still sounded worried that Margaret would turn her in. "What are you going to do now?" she asked.

    Margaret didn't answer. She kept her eyes closed and listened as the sound of the speeding cars was replaced by the low buzz of insects in a nearby field. She was going to get in her car. She was going to drive away.

Excerpted from destination known by Brett Ellen Block. Copyright © 2001 by Brett Ellen Block. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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What People are saying about this

Michael C. Curtis
In language that is truthful, focused, deceptively ordinary, and always observant, Block crafts stories about intimations of disaster or moments of awakening. These stories combine the blue collar texture and bulldog perplexity we associate with Raymond Carver and , on the other hand, the clipped economies of William Carlos Williams.
Charles Baxter
Block’s characters are often in that interestingly desperate condition halfway between comedy and total despair. Her stories have a headlong momentum, and a clear, fierce intelligence.

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Destination Known 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
ChiliHead1987 More than 1 year ago
The first book I read by Block was "The Grave of God's Daughter". That book was dark and, honestly, dragged a bit. I was hesitant to read "Destination Known" out of fear of the same. What I got was something different. At points, a couple of the stories did drag, but unlike "God's Daughter" the characters in Block's story collection were DARK. Some of them were on the verge of being too depressing, but it was these characters and their flaws that kept me reading this book. The stories are artfully told (the woman has a way with words that few other writers I have encountered possess) and they, the characters, are so clearly and thoughtfully presented. I would recommend this book only to those who really LOVE Block's writing...the average reader would become too bored and depressed to fully enjoy.