Book review – Lockjaw by Holly Farris

Lockjaw by Holly Farris
Gival Press, Arlington, VA

The language is fresh, the stories stimulating. Holly Farris’s first short story collection, Lockjaw, offers poignant glimpses into the interior lives of an array of diverse characters that linger in the reader’s mind. Her Appalachian narrators, though deeply rooted in Southwest Virginia, exhibit characteristics universally human. As they grapple with life’s challenges in ways not always successful, they struggle to understand their place in this world, whether on their own or in relation to others. Farris deftly displays the angst bubbling just below the surface of her characters, an act that leaves the reader often times uncomfortable and confronting his or her own insecurities or metaphysical challenges. In fact, the characters invite the reader to embark on a probing journey in fiction that mirrors the fullness of life.
Farris divides the stories into three sections: Youth, Maturity, Old Age. In each section readers encounter a different narrator of varying sex, sexual orientation, race, education level, socio-economic status, and age. The opening story, “Bloom”, however, is written by an omniscient narrator who employs flower metaphors to illustrate the colorful characters to follow in the subsequent chapters. From the start Farris demonstrates her creative word play as the speaker asserts, “When you awaken in early spring, watch for wayward flowers. Around ruined country chimneys, clay stripes like new cuts. Soil stigmata weep. Daffodil heads ruffle and nod; purple iris leapfrog across pocked fields. Tulips riot, calico, in midday sun. Flowers either mutiny or they march fencerows. Words typically used as nouns rouse the reader’s attention as verbs. Common verbs paired with uncommon nouns provide new ways of seeing and understanding the seemingly mundane. Readers grow alert to expect the unexpected.
While most of the stories stretch several pages, some punctuate the collection with a single page, a brevity that belies their impact. “Trace Erase” is one such story composed of two short paragraphs and two cryptic, albeit poignant, concluding lines. Without any idea of whether the speaker is male or female, readers only know that the “I” of the paragraphs is employed to “scrub the stain of dying at home out of houses.” As the narrator finishes the day’s work, “a suicide, not murder,” a group of porcelain dogs perched atop a dust-laden shelf interrupts. The inanimate come to life in this house where life was lost, taken. As the Trace Erase employee struggles to comprehend his or her own role in the morbidity of such sanitation work, he/she imagines a confused query from the dogs and registers their “disappointment at what they saw …” The employee’s response is brief. “It’s simple for you I say when I stand up to leave. People don’t always stay in sets.” Though the setting is different and the circumstances quite distinct, readers are reminded of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where the lovers are locked in eternity, on the verge of an intimate kiss that will never be consummated. Yet, the lovers remain beautiful and young, full of anticipation, forever defying the ravages of time. So, too, the dogs, “puppies leashed with fine gold chains” remain together throughout eternity, in a set, impervious to death.
The title story of the collection, which falls in the “Maturity” section, is indeed about a character, Brenda, who miraculously recovers from lockjaw, another name for tetanus. But the narrator, Janelle, is a young high school dropout who’s pregnant from a one-day fling with a tenth-grade boy trying to dodge boredom. As the two girls work Shuff’s roadside store during the stifling heat of a 1960’s summer, Janelle envies Brenda’s luck and resents her own state of affairs, noting, “Options. It’s what Brenda had and I didn’t.” As Brenda recounts her tale of stepping on a nail and acquiring the dreaded lockjaw disease, Janelle follows along but inserts her own unspoken but predictable story in Brenda’s pauses. “‘I had it all,’ [Brenda] said and somehow I counted the chances we’d both inherited but I had given away. I thought of her at Fort Bragg and me tending the counter to buy diapers.” Janelle laments her past and begrudges the baby growing inside her while Brenda readies herself for Army basic training and the opportunities to follow.
As Brenda concludes her story, however, she confesses, “‘Never since could I stand anyone near me…” At this revelation Janelle begins to feel sorry for Brenda and realizes, “I felt she needed me, needed someone, so she could spit out how it was to be so alone and then feel her way back.” Pulling herself out of her own self-pity, Janelle reaches out to Brenda—with an orange Popsicle, the kind that splits down the middle and can be shared. Yet Brenda conjures up the waning memories of her lockjaw when looking at the Popsicle stick. She instructs Janelle, “‘Eat it down to the stick, the part that’d be mine, and my teeth touch that mealy frozen wood. That’s lockjaw, teeth points clamping, on edge, wanting to bite in, nibble something good, but me not knowing how to stop if I did’.” Unexpectedly, and for the first and only time, Brenda acknowledges the baby growing inside Janelle, the baby that Janelle slowly comes to accept during this strange exchange. Janelle notes, “At least, it struck me that I had someone from then and always, this baby.”
Yearning for a human connection, lonely in her aloneness, Brenda takes the Popsicle leg and traces the outline of Janelle’s neck, back, shoulders, and belly with the frozen tip, offering her a small, cool respite from the oppressive heat. Thus, a temporary bond is formed, the healing continued, for Janelle reveals, “Circles and circles she drew, the paper envelope catching what sweet melted until its little leg twisted, leaving me sure there’s no feeling better than returning from alone.” The girls connect in a most intimate way as each continues to heal from both old and new wounds. Both girls survive and undergo miraculous recoveries—together.
In the concluding “Old Age” section, readers encounter characters aging, dying, or already dead. They also meet characters left to sort through the emotions of dealing with such end-of-life matters. Farris comes full circle in her writing. The life cycle is complete. In “Bringing up the Dead,” readers are transported to an earlier time in Appalachia’s labor history, the time when mules were replaced with motors in the coalmines. From the opening line the narrator, Anthony, explains his appreciation for the mules, animals his Boss calls “beasts of burden.” “Mules are more honest than any man. I’ve treated them accordingly, all the years I’ve managed a string in this underground mine.” Not only have the mules faithfully hauled coal from the mountain’s belly, Anthony recalls their role in bringing out “recent mashed boys to a car waiting at the switch on the tracks.” Hence, Farris’s title, at face value, reports the mules’ “bringing up the dead” from roof falls and explosions. And Anthony cannot see it any other way as he comments, “For me, blood’s always worthy of blood. Forget the motors. The mule pulls the sled, the mashed boy’s blood pumps out.”
Yet, the title reflects another type of surfacing of the dead. Anthony tragically demonstrates the truth of his opening line when he lies to a young jack mule, attempting to calm the animal as he leads him out of the mine. “Job for you, I whisper into the jack’s velvet ear.” Because the mules are bred and born in the mines, they never see the light of day, and consequently, grow blind with age. Covering the young mule’s eyes with his own bandanna to shield the beast from the sun’s painful rays, Anthony hands him off to two men he’s never seen before. Turning away from his companion, Anthony notes, “He walks flat-footed between them to the gate, to his first springtime smells and fresh grass.” The jack does not even have an opportunity to nibble at this new discovery, however. While Anthony struggles to lead another mule from the bowels of the earth, this one a jenny, he hears the gun shot. With heavy heart he laments, “Even this far below ground, I swear I feel his great weight fall.” Thus, Anthony is bringing up the soon dead, the honest mules that no longer serve a purpose and are therefore easily exterminated. And as a result, Anthony carries a great guilt for his role in the senseless destruction of a life that only served him and always did his bidding.
As with this final story, Farris’s entire collection contains difficult themes that resonate with readers as challenges of day-to-day life. The Appalachian setting unites the characters and influences many of their actions, but the diverse cast provides readers of all persuasions an opportunity to learn and investigate their own emotional reactions to similar scenarios.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Comment