Tim Gautreaux is best known for his two novels, both set in early-twentieth-century Louisiana. The Clearing examines the limits of fraternal bonds set against the background of the logging industry and the rise of organized crime. The Missing, also set in 1920s Louisiana, follows a guilt-stricken security guard through the lawless world of riverboat culture as he searches for a missing girl abducted on his watch. Rich in period detail, Gautreaux’s novels differ dramatically from his acclaimed short stories, most of which have contemporary settings not limited to the Deep South, and are far more reminiscent of the work of Raymond Carver or John Cheever than of Faulkner or James Lee Burke.
In “Idols”—a story from Gautreaux’s new collection, Signals—a solitary typewriter repairman inherits his grandfather’s crumbling Mississippi estate house and quixotically vows to restore it to its former glory, with disastrous results. “Attitude Adjustment” introduces a well-intentioned Catholic priest, scarred and brain-damaged by a horrific car accident, who gets himself arrested attempting to purchase a firearm for a convicted felon. In “The Review,” a debut novelist becomes obsessed with the mysterious author of a viciously critical review on Amazon and eventually drives across several state lines to confront his nemesis. These are but a sampling of inventive scenarios set in disparate locales, all hinging on harsh turns of fate and resolved by frequently haunting epiphanies that call to mind the stories of James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor.
Indeed, O’Connor seems to be the principal influence on Gautreaux’s sensibilities as a short-story writer, though not for the predictable reason. In interviews Gautreaux has repeatedly flinched at being called a regional writer—he objects to the very category of “Southern literature”—but he embraces the influence of his Roman Catholic faith. Especially in stories like “Attitude Adjustment,” where we see a genial but unfortunate priest beset with a series of trials fit for Job, the troubling nature of the concept of grace looms large: “At night, after the TV news and one beer, he’d meditate on his unlikely survival. The car he’d driven had been crushed to the size of a motorcycle. The only reason he’d lived was he’d been thrown out of the vehicle because he’d not worn his seatbelt. What made him forget to fasten it? Why was he still here?” As in O’Connor, the answers to the kind of existential questions prompted by Gautreaux’s stories—the implicit plea to an invisible God for mercy, or perhaps understanding—do not come easily, and are rarely as reassuring as we might prefer, despite the enormous satisfactions of the skillfully crafted stories through which these spiritual conflicts and resolutions are delivered.
The stories in Signals are, above all else, marvels of narrative craft. Gautreaux is as fine a stylist as you are likely to encounter, with a fluent, eloquent voice which, like a warm glass of fine brandy, goes down smooth and easy but never fails to delight with its rich, refined flavor. And despite their generally bleak subject matter, the stories are peppered with charm and levity, particularly in Gautreaux’s depiction of working-class characters which somehow manage both to embody and defy stereotype.
In “Idols,” Obie, an enigmatic handyman, works to pay for the painful and expensive removal of dozens of tattoos covering every part of his body, an effort to please a Pentecostal ex-wife who will take him back if he “got rid of all my idols.” At first sight, he appears caricatured and faintly menacing; by the denouement, however, Gautreaux reveals Obie to be the story’s moral axis. In “Sorry Blood,” an elderly man beset by dementia stumbles upon a car driven by a clownish loser “whose stomach enveloped the lower curve of the steering wheel” and who is “eating a pickled sausage out of a plastic sleeve and chewing it with his front teeth.” The ne’er-do-well convinces the old man that they are a father and son named Ted and Andy Williams and forces his unwitting captive to dig a drainage ditch while he sits in a lawn chair drinking beer. Unlike Obie, Andy Williams is no redneck saint. But the odd faux-family Gautreaux fashions over the course of the story makes him, if not endearing, at least faintly sympathetic, particularly when his mercilessly violent wife returns and discovers his chicanery.
The most light-hearted story of the collection is also perhaps its finest. The title alone—“Radio Magic”—suggests the conscious influence of Cheever’s classic story “The Enormous Radio.” Cliff, a Midwestern, working-class Average Joe plagued with “a great desire to be famous, if only in a small way,” decides to purchase his small piece of notoriety by creating “the most famous man cave in the county, a room full of startling objects that his friends down at the waterworks would wonder at and maybe bring to the attention of the regional news media.”
Among other oddities, Cliff acquires an enormous antique Philco radio modified by its owner to pick up AM channels from across the world—in particular, one in Japan which broadcasts recordings of an unknown comedienne performing a cabaret stand-up act recorded in the 1940s. Cliff finds himself entranced: “The brightness of the comedienne’s voice stayed with him. She sounded so happy. The nightclub crowd loved her. She must have been famous.” Through an unlikely but utterly persuasive sequence of events, Cliff locates the forgotten comedienne, now elderly, and tries to persuade her to let him re-introduce her to the world. “Mr. Cliff,” the woman says, “if you want to be well known, go out in your backyard and say your name to the sky.”
Cliff’s vague but inescapable need to be known speaks to the common thread running through Signals: fathomless desire—for love, or status, or survival, or mere acknowledgment. The world Gautreaux presents here is unremittingly bleak. And yet these stories seem especially timely and important in our current historical moment. Anyone laboring to make sense of the forces that put Donald Trump in the White House might consider skipping the latest op-ed piece and turning instead to Signals, which reveals in penetrating detail the harsh realities faced by people who have nothing to hope for but change, whatever the cost.
Ed Tarkington’s debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, was published by Algonquin Books in January 2016. He lives in Nashville.