By Alex Friedman, assistant editor, The Fourth River
Tom Noyes’ third book of fiction, Come by Here, published in 2014 by Autumn House Press, collects six varied stories and a novella (that lends the book its title) relating to environmental issues. Mr. Noyes imagination, compassion, and artistic charm shine throughout this collection. Each piece presented here is individually touching and well imagined. Initially, there may seem to be a tonal clash between the stories and the novella. This odd grouping is the only arguable weakness of the book. Such a small complaint could be remedied by reading the two sections separately, but close thematic scrutiny of Come by Here shows the pairing to be ultimately artistically constructive.
The short fiction presented here feels both fresh and familiar. The setting of each story is novel in some way: an illegal fishing operation, a strange diner in a lousy neighborhood, a little league game, a wedding-themed reality show. The settings serve to draw reader interest (who isn’t curious about these places?) but they also carry an underlying theme of environmental pollution/profiteering through the book.In every story, the environment interacts with domesticity. Even the oblivious bachelor reality show host who narrates “Soul Patch” is acutely aware of the impact of environmental politics on the domestic lives of the people around him. He sees his mentors’ relationship as it has been informed by climate disasters, which provides the reader with a clue as to how to approach the rest of the collection.
While some of these stories have a generic connection to this theme, the best ones evolve an acute tension and stakes around a specific real world event. The real estate agent who serves as antagonist in “Curb Appeal” (channeling a young Willy Lowman all the way) tries to keep home buyers in the dark as he sells them a home in Love Canal, New York (where an awful garbage containment disaster occurred in the 1970s). Noyes captures the sleaziness of the realtor and compares it to the sleaze of the short-sighted community that allowed the events of Love Canal to occur.
Similarly, the black market fisherman who narrates “Bycatch” struggles with a choice between reporting an Asian Carp he’s caught in Lake Erie to the authorities (ending his illegal livelihood) or failing to protect the lake that has provided for him. However, the depth of interior conflict in this story goes beyond this wide view. The fisherman also finds himself empathizing with the carp, leading to a conclusion both touching and anxious.Noyes’ work manages to convey his compassion for the interior conflicts of his subjects while also allowing for humor. Irony in these situations is handled gently and deftly. The reader is allowed to find amusement while also experiencing the earnest struggles of the protagonists. Often, the reader is left with the feeling that someday, everyone might get a chuckle out of the Asian carp or an oil spill.
That sort of levity is all but discarded for the titular novella. “Come by Here” is a brooding and somber work. This tone and the more impressionist/abstract style Noyes adopts are markers for the present day literary novella. Stakes are higher, betrayals are more personal and outcomes are unsure in “Come by Here.” Death stalks the space between sections of narration, and the narrative is buffered by a shadowy prophet who drunkenly stumbles with corpses a decade before the main story.
“Come by Here” focuses on the ruin of Centralia, PA, and three generations of families that are shattered. The prophecy of apocalypse haunts this place, but when it arrives, it proceeds slowly. As the city burns out from under itself (Centralia rests on an abandoned coal mine that has been burning for decades), so do the lives of the families too stubborn to flee. The plot lines within this narrative are much harsher, and Noyes refuses to provide tidy endings for any of them. Resolution cannot be found in “Come by Here,” just as the apocalypse is a state of chaotic undoing in Centralia. For Noyes’ characters, there is no hell like the denial of catharsis.
Whether the reader digests this work as a whole or as two parts, Come by Here is a satisfying and artful book. There is certainly something to be gained from the juxtaposition of tones along the repeating human-versus-nature-versus-self conflicts, but whether that whole is greater than the sum of the pair is largely up to the reader’s willingness to follow Noyes’ reasoning. Come by Here is easy to recommend either way.
Alex Friedman teaches and studies writing in Pittsburgh. His short story, “Watercolors of our Flooded Ruins,” was featured in the 2015 Great Old Ones Publishing anthology From the Corner of your Eye. Alex helped edit fiction for issues 12 and 13 of The Fourth River.