In many ways, a collection of one writer’s stories is analogous to a one-person exhibit of visual art. As well as being exposed to the impact of each individual piece, the reader or viewer is given an overall impression of the artist’s skill and influences, and the general direction in which his or her work has developed. In Catherine Brady’s third collection of short fiction, The Mechanics of Falling, the most powerful impression seems to be that of line drawings, not because of any lack of color but because each story has striking impact both in its delicacy of nuance and its boldness of expression. However, in Brady’s unusually versatile and gifted voice, there is a seamless fusion between delicacy and strength. It is not surprising that this collection begins with an epigram from Chekhov, whose fusion of the exceptional and the everyday characterizes his finest work.
The delicate nuances of Brady’s writing are inherent in her sense of language, in her use of dialogue and imagery, and in the lightness of touch with which she infuses the most serious of issues with deft humor. She knows exactly how to capture the essence of a look, an exclamation or a gesture, so that, like a tiny sliver of glass or a needle sliding beneath the skin, it can penetrate the reader’s consciousness and leave its impression while hardly calling attention to itself. “Some people are too stupid to be afraid on a runaway horse,” Brady writes in the title story of The Mechanics of Falling, a revealing glimpse into the lives and loves of horse trainers at a stable near an affluent suburban community . “Some people freeze up. Some people turn cold and clear inside…and only start to shake afterward. Annie sails into trouble like she wants it to last forever, like she can skim off from fear only what’s precious.”
This same Annie, struggling with conflicting desires and the choices she must make, later bursts out, “I hate being young!” and instead of laughing at her – or perhaps, in addition to laughing at her – the reader understands all too well the causes and consequences, of her anguish, perhaps even recalling his/her own sense of clumsiness and lack of social articulation at Annie’s age. The moral of this moment, perhaps, is that no one is worthy of being envied; no on, no matter how young, how nubile, or how gifted, e is too far outside the range of helplessness and hurt to be admired beyond a reasonable doubt.
Brady’s writing might at first seem almost plain, but as the context of each story’s situation unfolds, a fine-tuned understanding invariably reveals itself. The issues around which Brady’s plots revolve usually concern the struggles of a mismatched or troubled couple; of their confrontation with some impossible situation and the general quandary of what each party of the couple needs to learn in order to survive. At the same time, her characters sometimes seem diffident, confused, even comical. Sometimes they are indeed so young that they can’t even recognize what they’re feeling at any given moment. And yet even when they’re not so young –even when, as frequently in these stories, they’re downright middle-aged — they seem to be searching for a way out of one of life’s myriad ordinary dilemmas, whether social, personal, economic, or even physical. And in contrast to Brady’s frequently quiet, measured voice, the means of individual release is sometimes revealed explosively, under unusual or even violent circumstances.
In “The Dazzling World,” the second story of the collection, a couple, Cam and Judith – unmarried and living in separate apartments, despite having been lovers for four years — journey together across Guatemala to visit a friend’s archaeological dig. Cam is a “journeyman actor;” Judith, an illustrator of scientific articles and books. Although they have examined all the various issues and options of their relationship , both with one another and under the counsel of a therapist, they have not grown closer or dared to move in together. But on this journey they are suddenly confronted by situations which they might never have expected in their reasonable and somewhat predictable city lives.
Even on the crowded bus that will carry them to the dig at which they expect to be at most, guests and observers, they are accosted by the sense of the “dazzling world” overcoming their individual identities. They encounter forces over which they have no control but which surround and threaten them nonetheless. The bus lurches; a woman’s bag slams wildly into Cam’s body; rather than exploding with anger as he might have done in his native, “civilized” city, he eventually responds with good humor, and the relationships begin to change. Then, on an isolated road, the bus is invaded by armed bandits and all the passengers are threatened, humiliated and robbed. Despite this, Cam and Judith find that they are able to continue their journey, arriving frightened but relatively unharmed at their destination. And there, after being welcomed and comforted by their friend, Cam and Judith witness the results of the archaeological dig they have come so casually to witness: they are present when the carefully opened trenches in the soft, pebbled earth are excavated and opened, to reveal a long-buried skeleton and an ancient flute. “Twelve hundred years in the ground had stripped from this body the taint of fear and sorrow but somehow left an irreducible beauty,” Brady writes, and as the wind shifts loose earth from the trenches, Cam calls out, “It’s the spirit flying,” while Judith fits her own fingers into the contours of the ancient flute. Without reading further, one knows that both of them have been changed by these encounters, and that their new awareness may well bring about a transformation of their lives together.
Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of Brady’s writing, in this collection, is her lack of fear of happy endings. After what has seemed to me a lifetime of expecting serious contemporary fiction to end in sadness, confusion, or pain, I found myself coming away from many of her stories with a sense of optimism, even of renewal and hope for human relationships. In the title story, the male protagonist suddenly realizes – in the most subtle and personal way – that he’s in love with the woman who has most specifically antagonized him. At the end of another story, “Last of the True Believers,” what looks like a typically dysfunctional contemporary marriage turns out to be a construction of mutual regard as exquisitely engineered and executed as the inlaid and bejeweled murals at the Taj Mahal.
As do so many of her characters, this author takes risks. She allows herself to risk describing unadorned emotion, lifelong devotion and responsibility both to family and society, and even bawdy humor in her characters’ actions and dialogue. There are a number of funny moments throughout the stories, but one of the funniest occurs when, helping her lovable but baffled Hispanic cleaner to decipher the instructions on a bottle of prescribed medication, a typically overworked wife, mother and professional woman reads them to a medical friend: “Vaginal suppositories. To be taken with food,” and then, exploding with exasperation, demands, “What’s she supposed to do? Shove a ham sandwich up there?”
It’s evident that Catherine Brady is a writer who seems content to leave us with a regard for our lighter side, our more ordinary moments, as well as a healthy respect for those other, perhaps more powerful human emotions which contemporary fiction seeks so often—perhaps too often—to explore. No matter how elegant or bawdy her writing, Brady always brings us home to the truths of human engagement – to the truths of our lives right here, in the cities and ranches and suburbs and remodeled houses and alternative radio stations and summer resorts of our own modern lives; among full-time activists and part-time waitresses and horse wranglers and overstressed mothers and wives, among wounded teenagers and young urban professionals and undocumented workers and all the other survivors of our 21st century world.