Review by Emily Webber
When I was a kid, I loved when we drove somewhere at night so that I could look at other people’s houses, lights glowing in the night, and wonder what was going on inside. Something was intriguing about lit-up windows, even if I couldn’t see inside. Particularly driving through certain suburban neighborhoods, the houses looked perfect from the outside. I thought the key to happiness was getting get a place like that when I was older. Kelly Fordon’s short story collection, I Have the Answer, is like wandering through that perfect suburban neighborhood but with all the windows and doors wide open. The stories encountered here are not the idealized version of my childhood imaginings. Instead, they are full of anger, disappointment, sarcasm, and dark humor. They deal with loss of all kinds and how the push to healing or re-examination can come from unexpected places.
Every character in I Have the Answer deals with loss—death, loss of memory and identity to Alzheimer’s, loss of innocence, mental illness, addiction, broken bodies, and even just coming to grips with the fact that one’s life will not be as expected.
The first story, “The Shorebirds and the Shaman,” perfectly embodies the collection’s essence. Corinne tries to cope after her husband dies unexpectedly in his sleep. Her only child is back at college, and she’s sealed herself off in her house. Her friend, a therapist, and her son conspire to get her to visit the friend’s cottage under the guise of relaxation. However, when she arrives, her friend admits that a group of therapists will be there too, participating in an unconventional therapy she believes Corinne will benefit from. The story is full of humor, sadness, and the unique experiences and memories that make up our relationships with those closest to us. Everything about the story presents the idea that even our most private grief and failings are on display no matter how much we try to close ourselves off or hide it. In the end, Corinne regains some control over her situation. Like many of the characters in these stories, she moves towards a new understanding; although small, it feels like something that could turn into a positive change. And like many of the stories, there’s a current of dark humor running throughout the story. A therapist tries to convince Corinne of the benefits of the therapy they are going to try:
“You’ll be really surprised how moving it is,” he said. “Last time I did Constellation Work, I cried nonstop.”
Great, Corinne thought. I haven’t done that in a while. (8)
One of the most powerful stories in this collection, “Afterward,” takes a shift away from this theme of the outside world pushing in. This story deals with the loss of a child to addiction, particularly in a country where some doctors and pharmaceutical companies enable addiction, and many people act as if it only happens to others. All the mother has left are the memories of her son, both good and bad, and her haunting dreams. Read against the other stories, this one stands out even more powerfully.
Last night, the wave crashed into the rowboat. Finally. It happened in slow motion. At first the wave appeared to be pushing the boat along, then it rolled the boat. I felt like I was watching from above, from a great distance. The wave kept coming until it filled the screen of my mind and everything went blank.
I woke up.
I woke up.
I died and then
I woke up. (153)
Nothing pushes her away from her grief, and there’s no shift in the story that signals a change. Instead, all she has is a memory of a long-ago moment of peace with her son.
Many of these stories are crushing. “Jungle Life” recounts a man’s quest to gather his father’s stories and memories before losing them to Alzheimer’s.”
Before we left his office, he caught hold of my arm. “I always tell the kids this: Think of his mind as a library on fire. Take advantage of the time you have left.” (23)
Fordon’s prose is precise and powerful—you know immediately what is at stake for these characters. As the son gathers his father’s stories from the war, he ultimately learns how people reshape memories into different truths to absolve themselves.
Nothing will change the fact that we will experience extreme disappointments, our loved ones will let us down in incredible ways, people we love will die. Yet, there are moments of tenderness. For example, in “Superman at Hogback Ridge,” a man’s teenage son, whom he views as disconnected and checked out, reacts in a surprising way to a threat to the family.
These characters possess biting, sarcastic voices and outlooks borderline on pessimistic, yet they are hard not to love for their honesty and openness. They are enduring this world like we all are, sometimes with only the smallest things to focus on and help them through.
She’d withstood the disappointment of autism and a nonexistent relationship with her mother. But seriously, how much more could she take? She took a deep breath. Probably, a lot more. People withstood a lot more. She had to look on the bright side. Phil could be annoying, but he was a bright side. The jewelry making could be a bright side if she got the chance to pursue it. (104)
In “The Visit,” a teenage girl struggles to understand her mother.
It was many years before I realized my mother’s perfect veneer was just like the chocolate dip on an ice cream cone. Who knew what was lurking underneath? (145)
Even the ordinary and mundane have a more complex reality. Every story speaks to the fact that we never truly know the inner lives and struggles of others, the people we see and interact with every day in our neighborhoods, and even our families.
This collection works so well as a whole, and you’ll be completely swept up in these different lives. Every story is full of fascinating lives—with intelligence, sharpness, and humor—resulting in a moving collection that explores our complicated relationships with ourselves and our loved ones and acquaintances.
Kelly Fordon is the author of a previous short story collection, Garden for the Blind, and two poetry collections, Goodbye Toothless House and The Witness. I have the Answer is part of the Made in Michigan Writers Series from Wayne State University Press. The series, edited by M.L Liebler and Michael Delp, seeks to showcase Michigan’s diverse voices.
Wayne State University Press, April 2020, 216 pages (paper)
Emily Webber has published fiction, essays, and reviews in the Ploughshares Blog, The Writer magazine, Five Points, Split Lip Magazine, Brevity, and Fourth & Sycamore. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. You can read more at www.emilyannwebber.com and @emilyannwebber.