I confess that when I sat down to read Christopher Linforth’s debut story collection When You Find Us We Will Be Gone (Lamar UP, 2014), my expectations were low. This was no fault of the author’s; rather, I had recently been through a spate of bad story collections that had left me jaded. This isn’t uncommon, as any reviewer will tell you, though he will also tell you that it’s invariably during these periods of disillusionment when something stunning finds its way to you, reminding you why you fell in love with books in the first place. And that’s exactly what happened with this collection.
The stories in When You Find Us are at once bold but also subtle, haunting but also full of hope, spanning decades and continents. In “Cowboys of Fukushima,” we meet a group of Wyoming cattlemen tasked with rounding up Japanese cattle after the infamous nuclear disaster in 2011. A lonely violin appraiser bargains with a renowned Czech violinist for a rare 1968 Stradivarius in “Diminuendo.” And in “Firelight,” a young man in postwar Long Island is torn between following his father into the insurance trade or pursuing a career as a writer at the urging of a free-spirited English teacher.
For me, When You Find Us calls to mind such authors as Jim Shepard and Wells Tower in its nuanced approach to topics like geopolitics and nuclear science: honest, yet accessible. Like these writers, Linforth writes with an eye for precision; his prose is swift and economical but not at the expense of dramatic tension. Take, for instance, his description of Zagreb, Croatia in “Homeland”:
In the crisp November light the concrete buildings are thrown into sharp contrast—rectangular outlines flat as monoliths dominate the skyline. Near the river I hear the clanging of the tram and see, as it turns the corner, old women staring out from the dirt-smudged windows. It has been three months since I was last here. My job requires tri-annual visits, each lasting a month at a time. Our relationship is built on these tenuous periods. We eat out a lot, drink pivo and rakja, and talk with her friends. They seem enthralled with the new Croatia, a country on the edge of Europe but not allowed in it.
Similar to Bush-era Croatia, the austere prose here disguises a restrained vibrancy longing to be let loose. It’s a skill that Linforth, a Sewanee Scholar and graduate of the Virginia Tech MFA program, exhibits in nearly all the stories in this collection.
The same attention to detail is given to the characters in these stories, each one rendered with a combination of Dubus-like realism and playful surrealism. In this way, they often reflect their environments, as in “Summer Grass, Winter Worm,” in which a policeman in a small Tibetan village investigates an unusual theft from a farmer’s land:
Cheng found a pilgrim truck parked on the edge of the square. Monks swaddled in vermillion robes were shifting small rolls of cloth from the bed of the truck. Over the years, Cheng had witnessed an increase in monks passing through the town, selling rope incense and red clay burners to generate income for the monastery. Recently, the Party had passed a new tax penalizing the ground upon which a monastery was built. He wasn’t sure how many months it would be until the monks began to protest in the streets and he would have to call in supplementary police from the other towns in the province. After locking his car, he followed the monks over to the supermarket on the far side of the square. He jostled through the stalls, shaking hands with vendors who recognized him, and bought a bag of raisins.
What I really like here is the way in which the character becomes a part of the setting itself rather than simply utilizing it as a launching pad for action. It speaks not just to the author’s skills as a storyteller but also to his global conscientiousness; Linforth has a knack for depicting vastly different cultures in exquisite detail without seeming to exoticize them or turn them into marketing devices.
Of course, as with any short fiction collection, there are a few less-than-stellar moments. Stories like “Flyer,” in which a boy joins his father at work one day only to be targeted by the man’s lecherous boss, focus a bit too heavily on plot and conceit. As a result, the characters feel a bit unrealized, stripping the prose of some of its crispness. But these moments are few and far between. More to the point, they are hardly enough to detract from the rest of the book, which deftly embraces the complexities of communication in a world where understanding of oneself is becoming increasingly rare.
Linforth understands that whatever differences we may have, either as individuals or as communities, they are trumped by our insatiable hunger to be understood by others. To this end, the author shows each character as much deference and concern as some of the most seasoned writers out there today, reminding us that the divides we perceive between ourselves are largely self-imposed. Good writers genuinely care about their characters, but I think great writers want us to care about them just as much as they do, and this debut collection sets Linforth on the path to the latter.
Jeremy Griffin is the author of the book A Last Resort for Desperate People: Stories and a Novella. His work has appeared in such journals as the Indiana Review and Shenandoah.
When You Find Us We Will Be Gone
By Christopher Linforth
Lamar University Press, August 2014
$14.51 paperback, ISBN: 0991107497