‘Telephone Road,’ by Austin fiction writer Thomas Derr, often reads like a memoir
Reviewed by Edward Nawotka for the Dallas Morning News (September 2012)
The stories in Thomas Derr’s debut collection,Telephone Road, often read like a memoir. Not surprising, given his pedigree as a graduate of the University of Iowa writing workshop. Derr’s stories echo the tone of the program’s longtime director, the late Frank Conroy, whose book Stop-Time laid the foundation for memoirs that read like novels.
The Austin writer’s fiction — save for a few narrative flourishes — often has the ring of the truth. In “Fire Party,” Derr, who after high school served in the Navy on the aircraft carrier Enterprise, tells the story of a young man serving aboard the dry-docked Enterprise who is enlisted in a hunt for an arsonist.
The story is rich with detailed exposition of the dull duty of Navy life. But the skillful sentence building is what holds your attention, as Derr deftly counterbalances the leaden diction of the military with surprising syntactical twists.
One sentence reads: “At 2300 hours on a duty day I sat in the Ventilation Repair Division Space — a hangar deck level space in the bow of the ship, in a passage called the tunnel — reading an unabridged dictionary, writing out word lists, increasing my working vocabulary.” I bet you didn’t see that last bit coming.
While Derr exhibits great skill with words, it is also his flaw, as several of his stories center around cerebral discussions of the nature of memory, possession and nostalgia.
The opening story, “Housebreakers,” is based on a clever premise, in which a man watches with neighbors who have let strangers pay for the privilege of destroying their house across the street. But as the tale devolves into a pot-fueled philosophical rambling, it leaves little room to deal with the denouement: the sudden appearance of a corpse. .
In “Clutter,” a man drives to his ex-girlfriend’s house to help her dispose of a dead deer that she found on her lawn, only to find himself overtaken by memories of their life together. When, by the end of the story, he is “gripped by a wistful sensation, a gathering proximity to remote things,” it leaves the reader longing for some explanation.
But these faults are not entirely the writer’s; Telephone Road would have benefited from a better editor. The book was published by Colgate University Press, a company that took a hiatus from 1994 until 2008, and since its return has put out just seven books, of which Telephone Road is only the second work of fiction.
A more attentive editor — Frank Conroy, maybe? — would have fixed the otherwise fine story, “Pronto Stop,” in which a house in Houston is alternately described as “five miles” and “just blocks” away, and questioned whether 16-year-old delinquents would casually reference Melville and P.G. Wodehouse.
All told, Derr is undeniably a talented writer. In the collection’s most memorable story, “The Sleeper,” a family bonds by engaging in impromptu drag races on Houston’s Westheimer Boulevard, with the kids bouncing in the back seat. When the parents separate, the father tries to redeem himself by taking his wife for a race in his newly souped-up ride, only to find himself outclassed.
It’s a wild, unexpected tear of a story, one that shows Derr is on his way, even if he hasn’t quite reached his destination.
Edward Nawotka is the editor-in-chief of Publishingperspectives.com.
(Colgate University Press,$18.95)