On Grant Tracey’s ‘Final Stanzas’
Tracey’s collection of short stories is often quiet but with many small, explosive moments that keep flickering.
Fiction | Short Stories
6'’ x 9'’
Perfectbound Trade Paperback
Also available in eBook formats
Review Format: Paperback
ISBN # 978–0986159718
Twelve Winters Press
Sherman, Illinois, USA
Taking a workshop led by Grant Tracey means you leave class every day feeling, often erroneously, that you can do anything. As both a writer and an instructor, Tracey is adamant about openness, exploration, and the sincere treatment of ideas and characters, characters who often struggle with intimacy and remaining authentic to their own needs and desires. I remember Tracey, a film scholar as well as fiction writer, once saying he doesn’t derive enjoyment from David Lynch’s work. “I don’t like ironic art,” he said simply. “I like art that’s authentic to itself.” This emphasis on authenticity and honesty is a quality that shines through in Tracey’s 2015 short story collection, Final Stanzas, available from Twelve Winters Press.
His is a collection that features a diverse set of settings, time periods, and characters that create colorful pieces that all speak, in some way or another, to the difficulty of authentic existence. What’s more, all of his stories are grounded in some element of reality; from autobiographical situations and childhood memories to reimagining the life of film star James Cagney, the stories, even when heavily altered, possess the rich ring of truth.
One of the most clichéd rules of writing is the oft-stated “Show, don’t tell,” a rule that Tracey continuously and effectively disregards in every story. While mimesis is generally considered more sophisticated of a technique, Tracey’s use of diegesis is strategic and well placed, often making a statement that is much bigger than the story in which it is contained. In the opening story, “Turnstiles,” Jeannie and Johnnie Betz, a young Canadian and American respectively, are experiencing marital issues against the backdrop of anti-American sentiment during the war in Vietnam. Tracey’s use of telling exposition in order to characterize the relationship between Jeannie and Johnnie also reaches beyond the story to speak to both historical and current political resistance:
“Jeannie found Johnnie to be so brave. It was easy to do what your government tells you to do; it is much harder to not listen when they are wrong.”
Although the use of diegesis was generally effective throughout the collection, whenever I encountered a particularly clear or defamiliar image, I found myself wanting to hang on to it for a while; at times it felt like the imagistic moments did not linger long enough before the diegesis swept back in and took over a lot of the interpretive work for me. Nonetheless, Tracey’s preference for actual storytelling makes his stories all the more unique from contemporary works that might compromise themselves in order to fit within these overly prescribed rules of the craft.
Despite the sometimes bald declarations of characters’ thoughts, feelings, and destinies, “Turnstiles” ends on an ambiguous yet hopeful note in terms of Jeannie’s and Johnnie’s marital fate. Indeed, many of the stories in the collection end with a sense of uncertainty. Even in fiction so propelled by authoritative diegesis, Tracey leaves room at the end for the reader to imagine openly on her own.
The theme of interior authenticity versus performance, which I attribute to this collection, appears to be acknowledged by Tracey, particularly in “Seeing Red, Feeling Blue,” a story about angsty, twenty-something hipster Dawn, who writes a provocative and pretentious first novel in which every situation is a metaphor for something else. Even though it would be easy to dislike Dawn, especially when we see the condescending way she treats her mother Deanna, Tracey treats his protagonist with empathy and encourages the reader to forgive Dawn for qualities that are often just a symptom of youth. While it would also be easy for the author to use this story as a soapbox in order to disparage ironic art, Tracey instead quietly juxtaposes the false with the very real and much more interesting relationship and pseudo love triangle between Dawn, Deanna, and Deanna’s lover Jonah. Although the characters run the risk of becoming the type of caricatures we love to hate, Tracey does not allow the story to go there, and instead insists that we view these flawed characters gently.
Although the stories in this collection feature a variety of characters from different ethnicities, occupations, nations, and backgrounds, “Seeing Red, Feeling Blue” is the one story to feature a female protagonist. Tracey does an excellent job of writing women as supporting characters (although, to be fair, writing women characters is easy if you just view them as people), so it would have been much appreciated if more of his protagonists had been women.
The deftness with which Tracey presents female characters is particularly evident in “Written on the Sky,” nominated for the Pushcart Prize and arguably the best story in the collection. It is a coming-of-age piece in which a young boy, Graham, develops a friendship with his attractive older neighbor, Mrs. Casson. The premise runs the risk of falling into the familiar trope in which the male protagonist fetishizes and dehumanizes the woman, who serves more as an icon for Woman rather than a real character; nonetheless, Mrs. Casson is not Mrs. Robinson, and Tracey refuses to take the story there. Graham’s relationship with Mrs. Casson is not oversexualized nor painted with gratuitous images of her body (Graham admits to his mother that he thinks Mrs. Casson is pretty, and that’s pretty much the end of the rhetoric regarding her appearance.); rather, their friendship is a genuine one in which Graham is deeply changed on a deep, emotional level rather than just on a sexual one. The narrator’s insistence on discussing Mrs. Casson as a mentor and friend as opposed to sexual object is consistently tested by the cultural influence and patriarchal familial structure that surround him. In a scene in which Graham visits the bachelor pad that belongs to one of his father’s friends, he is confronted with a wall of photographs and magazine clippings featuring naked women. In a quietly written image, Graham finds himself drawn to the tan lines on the models, not what is revealed but what is hidden:
“There was something about those borders, faded lines against darker accents on white bodies that suggested a peering into the forbidden.”
The men around him laugh and make jokes as Graham looks at the photos that are plainly displayed for all to see. The scene ends with Graham making a joke about a woman’s pale white ass looking as bright as a flashlight, a joke which suggests that, if only for a moment, Graham has subscribed to the masculine performance that the male figures in his life seem to demand. It is a moment that complicates the story in a way that makes Graham’s relationship with Mrs. Casson all the more tenuous and all the more important.
Tracey’s treatment of his characters is a kind one, a genuine one in which no one is beyond redemption. Like most short story collections, some stories are more memorable than others, and there are quite a few memorable ones in this book. The collection is one that is often quiet but with many small, explosive moments that keep flickering long after the pages have been closed.