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In twelve graceful, sensual stories, William Henry Lewis traces the line between the real and the imaginary, acknowledging the painful ghosts of the past in everyday encounters. Written in a style that has been acclaimed by our finest writers, from Edward P. Jones and Nikki Giovanni to Dave Eggers, I Got Somebody in Staunton is one of the most highly praised literary events to take on contemporary America.
In the title story, a young professor befriends an enigmatic white woman in a bar along the back roads of Virginia, but has second thoughts about driving her to a neighboring town as his uncle's stories of lynchings resonate through his mind. Another tale portrays a Kansas City jazz troupe's travels to Denver, where they hope to strike it big. Meanwhile, a man in the midst of paradise must decide whether he will languish or thrive.
With I Got Somebody in Staunton Lewis has lyrically and unflinchingly chronicled the lives of those most often neglected.
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About the Author
William Henry Lewis is the prizewinning author of a previous story collection, In the Arms of Our Elders. His fiction has appeared in America's top literary journals and several anthologies. He has been honored with many awards, including a prize for short fiction from the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, he was a finalist for the 2005 PEN Faulkner Prize for Fiction, and he is the 2006 recipient of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Fiction Honor Award.
Read an Excerpt
I Got Somebody in StauntonStories
By William Henry Lewis
I was fourteen that summer. August brought heat I had never known, and during the dreamlike drought of those days I saw my father for the first time in my life. The tulip poplars faded to yellow before September came. There had been no rain for weeks, and the people's faces along Eleventh Street wore a longing for something cool and wet, something distant, like the promise of a balmy October. Talk of weather was of the heat and the dry taste in their mouths. And they were frustrated, having to notice something other than the weather in their daily pleasantries. Sometimes, in the haven of afternoon porch shade or in the still and cooler places of late night, they drank and laughed, content because they had managed to make it through the day.
What I noticed was the way the skin of my neighbors glistened as they toiled in their backyards, trying to save their gardens or working a few more miles into their cars. My own skin surprised me each morning in the mirror, becoming darker and darker, my hair lightening, dispelling my assumption that it had always been a curly black - the whole of me a new and stranger blend of browns from day after day of basketball on asphalt courts or racing the other boys down the street after the Icee truck each afternoon.
I came to believe that it was the heat that made things happen. It was a summer of empty sidewalks, people I knew drifting through the alleyways where trees gave more shade, the dirt there cooler to walk on than any paved surface. Strangers would walk through the neighborhood seemingly lost, the dust and sun's glare making the place look like somewhere else they were trying to go. Sitting on our porch, I watched people I'd never seen before walk by and melt into those rippling pools of heat glistening above the asphalt as if something must be happening just beyond where that warmth quivered down the street. At night I'd look out from the porch of our house, a few blocks off Eleventh, and scan the neighborhood, wanting some change, something besides the nearby rumble of freight trains and the monotony of heat, something refreshing and new. In heat like that, everyone sat on their porches looking out into the night and hoping for something better to come up with the sun.
It was during such a summer, my mother told me, that my father got home from the third shift at the bottling plant, waked her with his naked body already on top of her, entered her before she was able to say no, sweated on her through moments of whiskey breath and indolent thrusting, came without saying a word, and walked back out of our house forever. He never uttered a word, she said, for it was not his way to speak much when it was hot. My mother was a wise woman and spoke almost as beautifully as she sang. She told me he left with the rumble of the trains. She told me this with a smooth, distant voice as if it were the story of someone else, and it was strange to me that she might have wanted to cry at something like that but didn't, as if there were no need anymore.
She said she lay still after he left, certain only of his sweat and the workshirt he left behind. She lay still for at least an hour, aware of two things: feeling the semen her body wouldn't hold slowly dripping onto the sheets, and knowing that some part of what her body did hold would fight and form itself into what became me, nine months later.
I was ten years old when she told me this. After she sat me down and said this is how you came to me, I knew that I would never feel like I was ten for the rest of that year. She told me what it was to love someone, what it was to make love to someone, and what it took to make someone. Sometimes, she told me, all three don't happen at once. I didn't quite know what that meant, but I felt her need to tell me. She seemed determined not to hold it from me. It seemed as if somehow she was pushing me ahead of my growing. And I felt uncomfortable with it, the way secondhand shoes are at first comfortless. I grew to know the discomfort as a way of living.
After that she filled my home life with lessons, stories, and observations that had a tone of insistence in them, each one told in a way that dared me to let it drift from my mind. By the time I turned eleven, I learned of her sister Alva, who cut off two of her husband's fingers, one for each of his mistresses. At twelve, I had no misunderstanding of why, someday soon, for nothing more than a few dollars, I might be stabbed by one of the same boys I played basketball with at the rec center. At thirteen, I came to know that my cousin Dexter hadn't become sick and been hospitalized in St. Louis, but had got a young White girl pregnant and was rumored to be someone's yardman in Hyde Park. And when I was fourteen, through the tree-withering heat of August, during the Watertown Blues Festival, in throngs of sweaty, wide-smiling people, my mother pointed out to me my father.
For the annual festival they closed off Eleventh Street from the downtown square all the way up to where the freight railway cuts through the city, where our neighborhood ends and the land rises up to the surrounding hills, dotted with houses the wealthy built to avoid flooding and neighbors with low incomes ...
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What People are Saying About This
“Sentence by sentence, this deeply felt and lyrical collection proves that Lewis is a master of the short story.”
“Lewis’s new collection of stories is tender, ironic, disturbing, and always poetic. His work is a treasure.”
“The art of the short story is seduction. And how lovely it is to visit with this amazing voice.”
“These are quiet, deadly stories, beautifully rendered and exquisitely American.”
“Lewis’ language is tight and controlled, smooth even, weighted with rhythm and complexity.”