On Giano Cromley’s ‘What We Build upon the Ruins’

Jen S
Jen S
Nov 8, 2017 · 6 min read
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Cromley’s self-standing stories feature characters who fall short, themes of loss, and relationships persistently fragile and broken.

Giano Cromley
Fiction | Short Stories
162 Pages
5.2” x 8”
Perfectbound Trade Paperback
Also available in ebook format
Review Format: Digital PDF
ISBN 978–0–9986325–5–1
First Edition
Tortoise Books
Chicago, Illinois
Available HERE

Although my first formal introduction to the characters in Giano Cromley’s collection of short stories was only toward the middle of this past September, I immediately felt as if I’ve known them (or, more aptly, someone uncannily like them) for a long time — if not forever. Somehow, even when the temperature was still a bit too hot and air a bit too heavy, the collection felt like a favorite warm woolen blanket that envelops its inhabitant with a sense of the familiar, even if somewhat scratchy. The scratchiness, the worn patches, the quickly changing landscape — it seems only fitting that Cromley’s newest collection debuts in a November. (Cromley is also author of the novel, The Last Good Halloween, which was a finalist for the High Plains Book Award.)

What We Build upon the Ruins presents eleven short stories, all self-standing, with some surprising, but well-timed (and, in retrospect, critically cohesive), connections throughout the collection. While the stories can be read in isolation, I’m reluctant to recommend that a reader pick and choose among the selections. My reluctance stems from a fear the reader might overlook that one piece that provides just the right dose of relatability, recognition, and piercing truth. The reading experience is akin to that of entering a robust apple orchard or wandering through a well-endowed pumpkin patch. It often seems like a cruel twist of fate to be presented with such a bounty of fruits — shiny, bruised, ripe, real — and have to select just one. Thankfully, Cromley’s collection can be consumed in whole or in part. The choice is the reader’s, and the experience is oddly delightful.

In the collection’s opening story (which shares the name of the collection as a whole), one of the main characters approaches a tree whose bark is sought for a canoe-making exercise:

If you let us use your bark to make a canoe, in a way you’ll be part of our family forever. We’re good people. And we mean well, even if sometimes we fall short.

This phrase aptly describes each of Cromley’s characters. All fall short, in one way or another. Whether expressed self-doubt, the expressed doubt of others, or suggestive references to complicated pasts, each character offers much more than the typed-faced interactions shared on the pages of the short story he inhabits. Although we all, at one time or another, might fall short, Cromley’s collection never fails to disappoint. Cromley masterfully speaks to the reader as he shares the lives, the pains, and the triumphs of his characters. The messages are personal and powerful. Walls are built, walls are broken, and somehow, “beneath the ruins,” life goes on. Despite the sadness, the persistent “bleak symphony of despair” (from “Those Who Trespass”), and the theme of loss tightly threaded through much of the stories, the collection as a whole is, perhaps surprisingly, more contemplative, intriguing, and hopeful than sad.

In “Boy in the Bubble,” Paul wishes for

the strength to take her in his arms and squeeze her until whatever barriers had been erected between them crumbled. But he knew these kinds of walls did not surrender to brute force. Nor did they yield to attrition. They were built strong — piece upon interlocking piece — and they were, as far as he knew, indestructible.

In “Those Who Trespass,” Vincent

picked up on the first inklings of [a] relationship’s demise.

In “Ling,” Sammy gets out of the car. Next, he was

watching the car recede until the taillights were red pinpricks in the night. As soon as they disappeared, he knew, something would be gone for good.

In “Homefront,” we learn of Maura’s and Monty’s “trench warfare fights” where

both were so dug in neither of them seemed to have a way of communicating, much less surrendering.

Throughout the collection, relationships are exposed, persistently fragile and often broken. Where lives unravel, though, new connections form. The collection itself is woven together by two anchors (opening with “What We Build upon the Ruins” and closing with “The Physics of Floating”) and threaded tightly with an interior reinforcement (“Human Remains”). Like

a thing held together entirely through tension

(“The Physics of Floating”),

the actions, inaction, double meanings, thoughts unspoken, and words left unsaid all tie the stories together just so, with

everything pushing against everything equally, a taut balance.

(“The Physics of Floating”).

Resilience, rebuilding, trust, and rebirth persist throughout Cromley’s shared worlds.

The collection’s characters are simultaneously sympathetic and unsympathetic. The personas are endearing, complex, and familiar, all at once. While some are much more likable and sympathetic than others, all possess some traits of relatability (welcome or otherwise). The collection incites, even encourages, creation. Each story offers opportunities to see a bit of oneself through a window that exposes the lives of others. Though Cromley’s characters sometimes “searched for the right words to prick and deflate” the silence (“Boy in the Bubble”), Cromley seems never to struggle with that familiar predicament. The stories effortlessly tumble from one to the next. The characters continue to surprise.

But sometimes, when you think for sure a guy will do one thing, he’ll turn right around and do the opposite.

(“Eureka, California”)

Whether it’s Angus (a character in the collection’s namesake, “What We Build upon the Ruins,” who was “born into” the Bear Clan and the richly nuanced canoe-making business), the “exhaustion” in Trina’s voice or the “sharp edge of accusation” that emerged with Paul’s pain (from “Boy in the Bubble”), Monty (for whom ghosts “were nothing more than powerful memories” in “Homefront”), who “felt the kind of total isolation that threatens to rob you of your own identity,” or any one of Cromley’s other characters, the unexpectedly familiar is an ongoing experience. A mix of metaphors, analogies, raw emotion, a gentle tugging at one’s soul — all pull the reader forward.

Sometimes questions are answered; sometimes mysteries are solved. Other times, the reader is left wondering, and, with work to be done, putting pieces back together in ways that never quite mirror reality, but rather absorb and reflect the reader’s personal experiences and perspectives. In this way, Cromley makes his readers a part of his narrative, and we become a part of the families whose lives we learn about but for a brief moment in time. Many of the stories leave haunting questions, a desire to know more. Still, despite the often uncomfortable situations, as well as the rich diversity in time, place, and purpose that permeates the work, I consistently felt like a welcome observer to the shared interactions.

It’s kinda funny. Me and you took different routes, but we ended up in the same place.

(“Coyote in the City”)

Ending up in the same place as Cromley’s collection ensures a rewarding experience. Each story resembles a tree in a unique stage of the life cycle, all with varying degrees of development. The collection is ripe with life, humanity, and humanism. The collection is equally ripe with laughter, tears, and dismay. Sadness permeates many of the stories. In What We Build upon the Ruins, a sort of tense anxiousness accompanies each tale — much like a bated breath anticipating what comes next.

As I reached the end of Cromley’s collection, I was left both satisfied and wanting more, simultaneously. We are all builders in one way or another. Whether literally or figuratively, our lives are essentially works in progress, buildings in the making. Some of what we build will be, naturally, stronger than others. What We Build upon the Ruins offers a comforting and inspiring glimpse into the builders among us. Building, and sometimes rebuilding, lives, relationships, and futures, the characters in Cromley’s work are relatable and genuine. For anyone with a hunger for storytelling, a lens into the lives of others, and pointed exchanges that resonate with our own pasts, this collection delivers — eleven times over.

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

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