Good poetry is a many-layered thing. A good poem invites several visits in order for its reader to discover additional layers—or meanings—with each new reading. Not so, generally speaking, with prose, no matter how good.
Clifford Garstang’s collection of related stories, In an Uncharted Country, is an exception to that general rule. I know. I read this collection once in order to review it for Amazon, then re-read it following Daniel Casey’s invitation to re-review it for Gently Read Literature. I’m glad I did. It was only upon my second reading that I discovered the layers I’d missed the first time around. (In self-defense, I should mention that my first reading was relegated, due to my immediate circumstances, to the subway—a place of much noise and many distractions. In order to give the work the benefit of my undivided attention, I restricted my second reading to quiet time at home.)
In an Uncharted Country deals with ordinary folks in ordinary circumstances doing sometimes extraordinary things. Sam Shepard allegedly once remarked “It ain’t the story, son; it’s how you tell it.” I think that remark applies quite aptly to Cliff’s collection.
Many of these stories deal with familiar themes. Two of the best—at least in my opinion—“Saving Melissa” and “Heading for Home,” are variations on a pair of themes many writers have taken refuge in. No matter. Cliff does them the best kind of justice. One of the most poignant points in the plot of “Saving Melissa” may or may not be directly derivative of a device first used (so far as I know) by Evelyn Waugh in his short story “Bella Fleace Gave a Party.” It doesn’t matter. Cliff dusted off the device, gave it a new twist and subsequently created just as memorable a moment.
In the final story, “Red Peony,” In an Uncharted Country brings Cliff’s long list of characters together to celebrate a July 4th barbeque. I trust his readers will feel every bit as celebratory by the time they get this far. Cliff’s characters—most without a roadmap or even a compass—travel by many different roads to get to this celebration. Luckily for his readers, Cliff keeps us firmly on course from start to finish.