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Collection by Clarke examines life's ghosts

Fiction writer Brock Clarke will be reading from his new collection of stories, "Carrying the Torch," on Feb. 9 as part of the Canisius College Contemporary Writers series. He should not be missed.

I have had the pleasure of hearing Clarke read a story about a man who accidentally burns down the landmark that had been the home of poet Emily Dickenson and discovers how much fun it was. That story was said to be a draft for a forthcoming novel, "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes."

When I picked up this collection of Clarke's stories, I thought it might feature a blaze or two, but it turns out to have only a glancing relation to Clarke's fascination. He may be a literary arsonist, but the fires in this book are inside the souls of his characters, all of whom burn with a soft and consuming flame.

There is the forlorn wife who informs us that she is going to take a knife and cut off her husband's member. (Relax fellas. She's just, you know, got a gripe.)

A divorced man traveling through Savannah, Ga., decides to buy the town in order to impress his ex-wife ("For Those of Us Who Need Such Things"). He'll need a control board before it is over.

In "The Reason Was Us," a lovelorn man who has recently moved into a new neighborhood begins sleep-walking into the houses of his neighbors, groggily announcing, "It hurts." (Don't these folks deadbolt their doors?)

Clarke's book is populated with these haunted characters who experience psychic collapses or X-Files visitations, like the man in "The Hotel Utica" who hears a knocking on his door every night, but opens it to find nobody there.

Being haunted is common to all of Clarke's characters, who are, as often as not, haunted by love.

"When I was 11 my father died in a tragic inner tube accident," announces one. "If he hadn't, then maybe I would not have become what I am namely, a 42-year-old brother betrayer, marriage wrecker, mother killer, second husband, ghost impersonator, amateur historian and home renter" ("The Ghosts We Love"). Since father died after diving through an inner tube and smashing his head on the rocks, the family has spun itself a cocoon of fables, like Mom's myth that Dad was a man of infinite skills, who could perform any task and save any situation. (Dear reader, the man lived a klutz and died a klutz.)

Every year the family returns to the same mausoleum of a lakeside cabin: Mom to drink herself into a rage, brother Biggie to pretend to be happily married and the narrator to try to win back the love of his bird-watching wife, who responds to his affection by reporting, "Pigeons molt everywhere except in one country. They don't molt in the Netherlands. Or Holland, if you prefer."

But there is too much to overcome, including the ghost of the daughter who died at the age of one of a hernia. When the narrator tells his wife that "everything is going to be all right," she explodes: "You're lying. Don't you ever lie to me again." As for brother Biggie (short for Bigamist?) he smuggles in phone calls to his lover while his wife is out shopping. What this family needs is what it gets: a shattering blast of truth, which will sear away the failures and the pipe dreams and allow space for new growth to appear. When reality hits it comes like a firestorm that ignites the combustible tinder of lies and burns away 20 years of overgrowth and dead wood.

Clarke's fiction comes draped in the fabric of common life: the ordinary is what he knows and believes in. It keeps his writing close to ground level.

He begins his book with a quote from Saul Bellow, whom he resembles in his devotion to the common life as the measure of all things. And being from upstate New York himself -- from Little Falls, where he got his start as a newspaper reporter -- Clarke is particularly attuned to the ragged hearts of desolate places: the empty silos, the silent mills, the rail sidings to nowhere with their boxcars of nothing, the streets of sorrow, the gaunt, spidery places. And yet he is never overcome by it: his voice is always ironic, wistful, daring, and funny in a minor key.

Thus this lead from my favorite story, "The Hotel Utica": "It was the year of divorce, of murder in the alley behind the theater and late-night knocks on the door, and it was also the year when grand old hotels were reopening in all the dying, shuttered downtowns of the industrial East Coast cities after which the hotels had been named."

An opener like this has the rumble and candor of a newspaper lead, and Clarke has the newsman's instinct for social documentary. (Other upstate novelists like William Kennedy, Richard Russo and Frederick Busch come readily to mind.)

The stories are ghost stories just as surely as anything Wes Craven ever directed and could be titled "Nightmare on Genesee Street," though some of them are set in Clemson, S.C., where Clarke taught for many years before moving to the University of Cincinnati. Still, it is the concluding story, "The Hotel Utica," that brings this collection home to readers like ourselves, because with a change here and there it could easily be "The Hotel Syracuse" or "The Hotel Buffalo."

Carrying the Torch

Stories

By Brock Clarke

University of Nebraska Press

176 pages, $22.95

Mark Shechner is the chairman of the State University at Buffalo English Department.

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