Blissful and Others Stories by Steven Huff
Cosmographia Books, 2017,153 pages, $14.95
Don’t be deceived by the title of Steven Huff’s collection. The Buddhist priest was in the gym where I work out. He looked down on the locker room bench where I had tossed Blissful, gasped in awe, and asked if it was a spiritual book. I coughed back a bolt of laughter — I had gotten used to laughing inappropriately in all the wrong places in Huff’s stories, and had, by now, trained myself how not to laugh — and said No, and then I said Yes, if you take God as a cosmic trickster. Think of the Book of Job as a comedy, I told him. He looked puzzled, and then a smile suffused his face. He had just savored his morning koan.
Steven Huff is not a god or a trickster, just the poor dude whom he disclaims in the beginning of the collection:
After heaven crashed I dove in the river,
retrieved the black box & pried it open.
I know it was none of my business.
You’ll want to thank this messenger for his faithful recording of just what the, well, heaven is going on under the spaced-out clouds and bright blue dome of sky, on this sorry crust of earth. That he got away with it is a kind of miracle. “We see through a glass, darkly,”1 say the scriptures, meaning we don’t really get what’s going on this side of the Veil. Steven Huff gets it. He polishes the glass, illuminates the darkness, and offers us his collection of ten deep-cut gems mined from the frontier of the imagination, somewhere between the hallucinogenic stories of Denis Johnson and the fantastical tales of Harlan Ellison. They are that good.
Twists of Fate govern the stories, but not always in the ancient Greek sense. The threads of the characters are snipped, but then tied to each other or their circumstances, causing a cat’s cradle of chaos, betrayal, love, rage, dark comedy, and violence that somehow manages to untangle to disturbing, amusing, tender, and surprising conclusions.
“Life is Brief” is an apt beginning. Meet ex-nun Madeleine Weeks, on the lam from her dog-sitting job in St. Cloud, Minnesota, having stolen the owner’s credit card to fly to Buffalo to meet a man being released from Attica Prison so she can whisk him back home to marry “then maybe we’ll head south where he’s got people. Or maybe we’ll just go someplace and screw.”
Huff gently drops us inside the former Sister Clara who “had gotten out while her hair was still red” as she relishes not being “Sister Nice-Guy” and snapping “like a bear trap” at a passenger who tries to weasel ahead of her on line to the bathroom. We get to know the loopy logic of her heart that impelled her on her one thrilling ride of freedom, her final moment threaded with tenderness and elegantly rendered in the future unreal conditional:
She was above the snow clouds now, and if she had remained conscious she would have thought they looked as though she could walk across them—like a vision she’d had as a child of the road to heaven that she’d walk someday if she finished her life faithfully as a nun.
“Come Back Little Hog” is a horrifying and exhilarating tale of Japha, a man whose birth defects provoke his co-workers to bully him in a particularly brutal way. He finds courage to face down his tormentors, and fight back. “But now a new energy filled his arms and legs, and he realized he was drawing on strength that he hadn’t known he had, … He would run out of this used up life and into a new one in which he would carry a gun.”
In “On a Mountain Road,” Gautieri is on the way to meet his friends for weekly target practice where they take sport shooting at a straw gorilla and bear. He stops to help a group of young people with their broken-down car and belligerent dog. When they steal his car, leaving him stranded, he discovers his killer and atavistic instincts.
Sex is subtext in “Air Baggage” when a man and a woman pick up each other’s luggage at the airport, and their attempt to set it right turns into a ménage a trois. Go figure. One plus one equals three in this sly and slippery tale.
In “Blissful,” Ellis Brown, a Seneca man, has just been released from a nine-year prison stretch for holding up a store with a water pistol. To get back in the good graces of his mother he impulsively tells her he “found the Lord in prison and learned faith healing. A complete lie, but he had to tell her he was different now.”
His mother puts him to the test by having him lay hands on his aunt who has a swollen knee. To his surprise it works; but all he can think of is how use his new “talent” to get down with Connie, “a red-haired white woman … the last woman he’d had before sentencing” who is now engaged to Daryl, another Seneca man.
After all the melodrama, bedroom farce, road rage, and a few knock-down-drag-outs, redemption is found around the kitchen table in a game of cards, and a lunch of hot dogs, canned macaroni, and a quart of Schnapps. Huff threads with tenderness this patchwork- quilted story.
The lodestone of this collection is “Lightning.” It is also, in my view, a landmark in the evolution of consciousness of American short fiction flashing back to the origins of the genre, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.”2 Both tales center on a beautiful woman and her agency in the world of men, particularly, their husbands. Both women are marked by nature: Georgiana, in Hawthorne’s tale, by a birthmark on her cheek that resembles a tiny red hand. She is confident and self-possessed. Her former lovers consider her birthmark a charm; yet her husband, a scientist, comes to loathe it as a flaw, and shames her until she acquiesces to his medical experiments to remove the “bloody hand,” with fatal consequences.
Dominica (known as Sunday to her friends) has a red, jagged scar branching down her back “from the top of her right shoulder to the left cheek of her butt.” This happened when she was seventeen, having sex with her boyfriend, “on top, riding Alfieri like a porpoise, when this bolt of lightning came through the window and put the white sword right through her back.” She survived, and thrived. Her boyfriend? This was one of the places I laughed inappropriately.
Sunday becomes a kind of secular mystic. Her husband Kedsell, who has only heard her story second hand (she refuses to tell him), holds her in awe, fear, and respect usually reserved for deities; or perhaps, an equal. Sitting at the kitchen table one night, he asks her how she got her scar while she’s reaching in the fridge for a Pepsi. The scene crackles with Sunday’s voltage as she snaps back his question like a live wire:
She turned and let the fridge door swing slowly shut without getting the soda, and gave him her rarest face, unreadable as ancient scripture. “You’re telling me you don’t know?
He sat up straight. “No. I mean, yes, I’m telling you I don’t know.”
“What do you think?” she said. Then she opened the fridge door again, but this time took out one of her Seagram’s Coolers, picked up her cigarettes from the table. And walked out on the back porch to sit in a chair and drink it and smoke. He could see the back of her head through the screen door, and moths circling the light above her, and a frantic June bug banging the screen. He didn’t go out to her.
“Lightning” rides the crest of our present historical reality. Sunday is Uberwoman. She is, perhaps, the post modern Prometheus Mary Shelly was harkening after in her signature novel.4 “Sunday … was never scared. Pissed off a lot of the time. But afraid, no. Was that what happened to somebody who survived a lightning strike?”
Huff not only tips over patriarchy (in all the tales women have agency — they claim the space of the story), but class as well: Sunday isn’t a high-powered executive, but poor, as are nearly all the characters in Blissful, “…hanging on by a thread, no matter how hard she worked.”
Huff also fires a shot at the dominant culture. The story takes place on and around the Big Tree Reservation. One day when Sunday and Kedsell are skinny dipping with their Seneca friends Johnny Fish and his cousin Dorie, the park rangers come by and fine them for trespassing. Dorie hollers at the deputies, “You can’t give a ticket to an Indian for trespassing. It’s our fucking land.”
Fawndolyn Valentine’s stark, breathtaking quartet of illustrations folded into this collection depicts death: its dreadful immanency, fuck you survival, impulsive killing, and murderous rage. Drawn in the digital medium of Procreate,5 they possess a haunting, dreamlike quality that illuminates the dark passages of Huff’s imagination, and bears witness to the psychological truth of the story. This is an inspired collaboration. Publishers take note of this talented and perceptive artist.
These stories transgress, are violent, tender, gritty, sexual, comical, fantastic, but above all, believable—barely. I am not even sure Huff knows what’s going on or going to happen. I get the impression his characters have broken free from his pen and are writing and revising their desires and destinies — what deft artifice. They possess wild magic, a mixture of danger and duende. How did they slip under my skin so easily, snatch a dark corner of my self, and reveal it to the light of my consciousness? This is why art is subversive, and why we need it now, so desperately.
- First Corinthians 13:12. KJV.
- I reread “The Birthmark” after “Lightning.” It was a visceral and intellectually stimulating experience, as if the two stories became aware of each other inside me, and I witnessed a vigorous debate across two centuries. Note to teachers: Try this out in your literature and feminist courses.
- “Lightning” by Fawndolyn Valentine is used with permission by Cosmographia Books.
- January 2018 marks the two hundredth anniversary of its publication.
- Fawndolyn Valentine, personal correspondence, 21 December 2017.