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Archive for Sunday, January 26, 2003

Less is more in short story collection ‘American Standard’

January 26, 2003

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The characters in John Blair's collection of short stories, "American Standard," are people leading swept-away or about-to-be-swept-away lives, desperate but complacent nobodies on their way down the tube. Those unfortunates not actually spiraling into oblivion are circling the porcelain bowl's rim like discarded cigarette butts.

Hence the title, which the book shares with the title of one of a dozen sad and stark stories.

"American Standard" isn't about happy people eager to greet blue Florida mornings. They don't have much, and what they do have, they don't seem to care to hold onto.

The title story is about two friends, Billy and Royce, a couple of bikers, though halfhearted Billy hasn't ridden in 20 years. Billy must help Royce pick up his new motorcycle, but "the whole idea makes his nouveau-middle-class-even-though-I-don't-have-a-job-anymore sensibilities shiver with dread."

Billy and Royce gather the rebuilt BMW from a bike graveyard of "rusting motorcycle carcasses, bikes leaning randomly against each other or lying in flat piles of two or three "

Later, Billy considers heading over to the unemployment office to review the job boards, or maybe to a local college to check on some classes -- "Better a student than a bum," he thinks -- but he "can't work up any enthusiasm for it."

He wanders over to Royce's place instead, carrying a couple of beers. Royce must make a delivery: "moving a little grass is all. From here to there. That's all."

"Anything looks hinky, we just give the dope the old American Standard and light out," he said.

"American Standard?"

"You know, like the toilets. It's a brand name. Just dump it and go. No sweat."

From "here to there" ends with both men spilled from their motorcycles onto the pavement after a run-in with a drunken teen-ager. Billy is banged up but conscious, Royce silent and motionless. Onlookers call an ambulance for Royce, then Billy disappears into the night on a bike with a shattered headlight, a stash of cash pressed against his chest.

"American Standard" also contains a few love stories, fumbling affairs between a drifting man and one-time topless dancer, and young adults at a church group who discover each other beside a river white with phosphate and wastewater, beneath a "moon full and soft as a blister above the trees."

"(Fisher) gripped Donna's cold hand and they walked into the wash of bright, clean light like the first lovers walking into the punishment that is this world."

Grim stories, but worth reading. In this case, stories about less -- or not much -- are more.

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