Monday, March 14, 2011

Find of the Week: Caitlin Shetterly

I fell in love with the short story when I was 14 years old.  It happened in a bright room in a prep school library over a copy of The Paris Review, which contained a story by Richard Ford called "The Reunion."  The events of the story take place in minutes.  Ford transports us from the loud stepping din of Grand Central terminal to hotels in the middle of the nation, where an affair transpired in an earlier decade. We follow the narrator's chain of memory and emotion while he, for the first time since, lays eyes upon an old friend he betrayed.  Ford took the form and does exactly what only a short story can do.  As a result, I spent hundreds of dollars on the Internet and in the bookstore where I worked during high school, as well as Borders and Barnes & Noble, hunting for short stories, especially in my favorite form, thematic collections including contemporary authors.

I followed "Reunion," not yet published in Ford's own brilliant collection A Multitude of Sins, to Caitlin Shetterly's masterfully arranged and edited anthology, Fault Lines: Stories of Divorce.  The stories in this book chronicle and reflect upon the late 20th-century wave of divorce that left parents and children alike asking what would happen after a marriage dissolved and they no longer pledged allegiance to a common home.  John Cheever, unquestionably the master of the short story about marital ruptures, comprises the prologue to Fault Lines; Shetterley uses his story "The Season of Divorce."  The sections afterward present phases in the death of a marriage.  "What Falls Apart" features stories by genre bigwigs like John Updike, Alice Munro and Andre Dubus, as well as the more contemporary Jhumpa Lahiri.  Michael Chabon, Russell Banks, and the underappreciated Alice Elliot Dark take us through what happens to "The Children" in the next part of the book.  "Reunion" appears in the final third, hauntingly titled "The Afterlife," joined by modern master Lorrie Moore and the bleak and brilliant Raymond Carver, among others.

Shetterly accomplished something with that book.  She worked hard at it.  A lot of people put time and energy and money into educations and careers, and did all the right things, and then found themselves, a short while ago and still now, unable to earn a living because of outside forces.  Although she shared her story via NPR radio diaries as it happened, I didn't learn about Shetterly's personal financial turmoil until I read an excerpt from her new memoir, Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home, in the Sunday crossword section (some people call it the magazine) of the New York Times.  The excerpt intrigued me, in part because of the witty and poignant writing, but mostly because I couldn't believe Shetterly, someone whose work I admired and assumed would  steady work stemming from her talents, had fallen onto hard times just like so many other Americans.

I bought the memoir as soon as it came out.  Knowing I've had trouble with memoirs, I was wary, but as an avid NPR fan and someone huddling in grad school because of the recession, the story intrigued me.  Shetterly begins at the end: she and her husband, Dan, her dog Hopper, and her new baby son lie in her mother's house in the woods in Maine, just back from an 11-day drive across the country.  This drive, long and grueling, filled with strange motels and late-night stops to nurse the baby, was a dragging end to a yearlong odyssey.

After getting married, Caitlin and Dan decided to move to Los Angeles.  The city held many possibilities for the two.  Dan, a successful photographer who worked his way up from a trailer park outside of Portland, and Caitlin, who, besides Fault Lines, had written various magazine and radio pieces and founded a theater company near her hometown, seemed poised for a promising and successful start to married life in the new city.  Only a few months after their move, an unexpected pregnancy arose, the crisis hit, and where Dan had been lining up job after job and traveling around the country and even to Europe, work suddenly dried up and left them with next to nothing to support a new family. 

Throughout the ordeal, Shetterly manages to find a voice with the right combination of urgency and reflection.  She describes in detail each step of trying to keep their new life together; the reader stays right with her as she sees the effects on her stalwart husband, as she struggles to stretch dollars at the grocery store, as frustration mounts in a series of apartments in the big, unfamiliar city that they can't enjoy like they thought they would be able to.  The narrative has its choppy moments, but more often Shetterly's tangents - about childhood memories, about emotional transformations during the ordeal - serve to deepen the story and bring us closer to her experience.  She pays careful attention to detailing the changing terrain as they drive cross-country (twice) and make the drastic move from coast to coast.

At its best, this memoir not only combines righteous frustration with the recession, a rich sense of place even when its author has just arrived in a new setting, and a frighteningly sudden and rich emotional journey; it holds beautiful surprises, big and small, like the way Shetterly writes about her dog and cat as essential parts of the family; her strong and beautiful partnership with Dan; the occasional simple and delicious sounding recipe, rattled off in the middle of a scene; and, especially, the kindness and generosity of strangers and far-flung family and friends alike.  This chronicle of a hardworking and well-meaning couple's struggle amidst crushing economic forces reminds us, through Shetterly's eyes, that dreams and aspirations may well wither away, but there are forces within and without ourselves that will lead us survival.  And that someday, we can imagine new dreams, and live them out with the rich and deep background of having fallen down and gotten back up again.


Sharon Henning said...

Nice post. I love your photo from the movie, "The Night is a Lonely Hunter." Alan Arka was incredible. It's one of my favorite movies. Thanks for following. I'm now following you. Looks like you're also following some good book blogs. I'll have to check them out as well.

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