Carrying the Torch

C ritics talk a lot about "voice" in poetry, not so much in fiction. I’ve been wondering why after reading Brock Clarke’s Prairie Schooner Prize winning collection of short stories, Carrying the Torch (Bison, 2005). Did I say reading? I Carrying_the_torch_covershould have said eating.

It’s all about Clarke’s voice, which is wry, reflective (but not too), keen and loaded with yearning and regret. I’d say a male voice, though Clarke’s female narrators are persuasive.  It’s a voice that speaks clearly over all the other distractions (children asking please make dinner, we’re hungry, for instance). And if the voice wants to take me to suburban life in South Carolina, or a lake house in Connecticut, I didn’t know I wanted to go there until just now, but certainly I do.

There are
philanderers, and serial philanderers, and their suffering mates, their
rootlessness and homesickness, plenty of regrets, backyard barbecues,
strange knocking, the neighbor breaking in at night, an 80 year old
mother talking in her sleep. Trust me, that’s all gravy. It’s the
voice. "Biggie and Sarah went for a canoe ride right before lunch, then
came back praising the lake’s beauty and how they already felt, only
twelve hours into the summer, like entirely different people. I knew
what they meant, too. Because isn’t this why summer exists, so that the
rest of the year doesn’t?"

I am a fair-weather fan of short stories. I’ve read too many—highly
praised—that are not very good. Too many are about being clever or
strange or sounding like somebody else. A book like this one restores
my faith in the whole genre.