By Allison Manley
How to Walk on Water
by Rachel Swearingen
New American Press
It’s energizing to pick up a short story collection, knowing almost nothing about it, and finding yourself pulled into each story after the first sentence. How to Walk on Water, the debut short story collection by Rachel Swearingen, will do that to you.
Swearingen’s characters make poor decisions that ultimately end up being serious mistakes. But these stories respect their subjects, even when characters do petty, illegal, or scary (or sometimes all three) things. Five of the stories are about young(ish) women. Whether in their 20s or 30s, their stories have a coming-of-age feel, waking up from the dreaminess of childhood with a disappointing finality. Most of the collection is set in the Midwest, though these are stories that really could be set anywhere.
There’s drama. Some stories, like “Notes to a Shadowy Man” and “The Only Thing Missing Was the Howling of the Woods,” involve kidnapping. Other stories, like “How to Walk on Water,” “Mitz’s Theory of Everything Series,” and “Boys on the Veranda” have characters dealing with things ranging from abortion to assault to the death of everyone in their immediate family. Despite having such soap opera elements, the stories aren’t melodramatic. These tragedies are in the background, things for people to maneuver as they deal with the real issue at hand: figuring out what the hell it is that will make them happy.
Money plays a part in the fate of these characters, but it’s only a strong part of these stories if you look for it. The four stories that focus on male characters are about men who have either struggled for money their whole lives or who have money to spare. In “Mitz’s Theory of Everything,” one of my favorites in the book, the protagonist Ona considers her relationship with her boyfriend Nate:
Nate Elkins was so healthy he glowed. He called Ona his Girl from the North Country. She was pure, so lovely he could just about marry her. He brought Ona to his family’s enormous “cottage” with its skylights and tiled veranda, and Ona thought, This must be what Mitz meant by new money.
He does not marry Ona, but you probably could have guessed that from this dry description, which somehow manages to be both hopeful and foreboding. Swearingen is great at highlighting these contradictions, and her occasional irreverence is also reminiscent of Joy Williams.
Crumbling imagery is scattered throughout. Flowerpots and paintings are cracked. Postcards are torn. Organic things, like flowers and umbilical cords, are dried and withered. We see these delicate items through the lens of the people who observe them and, despite everything they face, still refuse to let themselves be destroyed. So much contemporary fiction focuses on grit—dirt, metal, decay—which makes Swearingen’s delicate touch unique and refreshing.
Notably, the last story, “Advice for the Haunted,” is a ghost story. Not just a metaphor—yes, there’s an actual ghost—it’s the only story with an element of fantasy. Keeping it at the end of the collection emphasizes the strangeness in the previous eight tales. Ghosts aren’t real, but some of the circumstances of these other stories don’t feel quite real when they happen in reality. Yes, technically it’s possible for people to kidnap their grandson to baptize him…and it’s possible to lose your wife and daughter to different diseases in a short period of time…and it’s possible to find someone whose art is so eccentric that you don’t know if they are actually serious about it. And yet, something about a haunted house feels just as real as these unusual events.
There’s just the right amount of daring in these stories that you almost don’t realize how odd they are until they are over. Fans of short fiction would be wise to keep an eye out for future work from this fantastic writer.
How to Walk on Water is available at most local book sellers.
Allison Manley writes short stories and book reviews. She likes body horror, opera, beer, and dogs. She lives in Chicago and is an MFA candidate at Queens University Charlotte.