By Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli
As If We Were Prey
By Michael Delp
Wayne State University Press
The magic thing about writers is that we get to watch the way they think. They leave a trail of pebbles behind them, a body of work that, with good writers, expands, then flattens into a wide vista of explored ideas.
Michael Delp, teacher of creative writing at Interlochen Arts Academy and writer of many books of poetry and fiction, including: Over the Graves of Horses, Under the Influence of Water and more, is one of these good writers. With, As if We Were Prey, his new book of Michigan-based short stories from Wayne State University Press, he takes old and new themes and drives them and us to new places.
Commandos is the disturbing story of a boy bullied by a cruel young neighbor. The boy can see into the bullys second story bedroomwith binoculars. He takes stock of the Nazi paraphernalia; the photo of Adolph Hitler. The boy and a friend plan to humiliate their torturer, blindside him into tripping over a wire stretched between trees. When this fails, and his attempt at revenge only deepens his misery, he is left to watchalmost without emotion until the bullys life plays out at the end of a rope.
In the story, the boys grown self looks back from a different place and sees that the boy he was, never had a chance; that triumph wasnt waiting in the wings. The older man knows that life doesnt play out according to a self-written script; that the bully had . . . no real dad to come down to pick him up. No friends. Im thinking about his vacant eyes, the smoke of Camel straights rising up out of his sneer, one of his engineers boots propped up against the wallwaiting like a bird of prey.
This isnt Psych-101 stuff. This is growth, and understanding from a far place of years. The adult man sees not only the bully, but the boy he, himself, once was; a boy watching out the window, still trying to understand long after the bully is dead. Raw emotion is here, but something, too, of a different sort.
PAST AND PRESENT
We find the same qualities in We are Living in the Future, another past and present story entwined into a narrative teaching: you cant go home again. In this story a man mourns the loss of more than one life. There is no recapturing the boy he once was, nor should he want to. The friend he goes to visit, an old football player from his glory days in high school, now looks like a woodchuck. His gut hangs over his belt, and I could see different parts of his underwear poking out along the waistline of his pants. Under the decrepitude, the alcoholism, the loss of respect, adolescent stupidity, right down to a final degradation, the old football player still has one thing the man envies. One thing that will probably keep him tied to the past for the rest of his life.
Lessons learned in Delps work are never the ones we suspect were learning.
Of all these fine stories, I have two favorites. First there is Mystery Park, for the sheer pleasure of getting drunk and setting free a bear caged in one of those awful Michigan zoos.
The second favorite is Traveling Einstein. This is the story of Art, a man who travels Michigan, an itinerant teacher, getting paid by the citizenry to answer questions. He stands by his truck and defies the crowd he gathers to ask him anything. Anything at all. He knows all the answers. Who is the only president buried in Washington, D.C.? hes asked. Hes got the answer. What was the Great Gatsbys first name? He knows that too. But confronted with his own brain, where answers come from, he has no answer. After pulling an answer seemingly from so deep it frightened him, Art ...stopped the session and sat in his truck until the crowd went away. He watched them trailing off in the dust and waited for what seemed like hours for his heart to slow down, remembering that the answer had risen from deep in his limbic system, moving up through the blood and tissue of his brain like a bubble rising in maple syrup.
Art knows theyre waitingthose deep bubblesuntil the day there wont be a bubble left, and hell be asked the kind of question he cant come close to answering. When this does happen, he retiresnot with a brain-blowing explosion of knowing too much, but with a whimper. A woman teaches him the biggest question of all. The question doesnt come from a book, but from deep in the human heart. This question has, a single, unknowable answer, that sets him free.
Other reviewers have pointed to the sense of melancholy in Delps stories, and its there, but more important are the truths that spring from the melancholy. These are truths a grown man has to deal with eventually: who he was and who hes become. The stories here are right out there, in your face. Delp is shooting for deeper things, beyond simple emotion and experience, all the way to that inner core of knowledge we know is there but, like Art the answer man, are afraid to face. Maybe hes telling us were all prey to begin with but, like the caged bear, theres still hope of smelling freedom.
Elizabeth Kane Buzzellis third book in the Emily Kincaid mystery series, Dead Sleeping Shaman, will be in bookstores in May.