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The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea

by Christopher Meeks

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Nine of the thirteen stories in this first Christopher Meeks short story collection were first published in journals and literary magazines around the country, and anyone reading this little book will certainly understand why that happened. Meeks has a particular talent for getting into the heads of his characters and taking their doubts and concerns as seriously as the characters themselves take them. As a result, readers of Chris Meeks stories do the same.

Not all of these stories are about middle-aged people; some of the main characters are in their twenties, some in their thirties, but they have all reached a place where uneasiness about the future dominates their lives.

The stories are about relationships – between marriage partners, between couples choosing to live together rather than marry, between daters, and between family members of different generations. There are men and women unhappy about what their marriages have become, older men being pressured into marriage by younger women who are becoming more and more desperate to get it done, and older people simply trying to die with a little dignity. Some of the stories are funny, some are touching and sad, and one of them has a Hitchcock-like ending. What all the stories have in common, though, is the ease with which the reader slips into and out of them, along the way learning something about himself and his own state of mind.

My personal favorite, “Nike Had Nothing to Do with It,” is an ironic tale about a man who heads out on a run to relieve his anger after the mother of his newborn daughter announces that their relationship is no longer working. What happens next is not what either of them expected when the day began.

Particularly touching are the stories about dying, “Dear Ma,” in which an old woman hides more and more in her past as her days run out, and “The Rotary,” in which a loyal and loving grandson receives an unexpected gift at his grandfather’s deathbed. Meeks, however, manages to make serious points even when he uses humor in his stories. “Divining” is about a man who has become so “Californicated” that, even in all of his weirdness, he believes that he is the normal one and the rest of the world is out of step. And, in “Shooting Funerals,” another of my favorites, a 38-year-old woman tries to reinvent herself by becoming the world’s first “funeral photographer” – and is honestly surprised by the reaction she gets on her first job.

"The Middle-Aged Man & the Sea" is a very fine short story collection and I highly recommend it, especially to those readers who might be dipping seriously into the short story genre for the first time.

This modern day collection is an excellent place to start.

Rated at: 5.0 ( )
  SamSattler | Apr 11, 2009 |
Christopher Meeks’ first collection of short stories is chock full of humanity. The stories are quirky, accessible and insightful and tackle a variety of themes. In the first story - Academy Award Afternoon and Evening - a couple envies another couple’s home and expensive furnishings, only to discover there may be more important things in life than material possessions. Likewise, a character’s ruminations on his mortality in the title story seems to put things in perspective for the narrator who is on a fishing trip with his brother-in-law.

'As he spoke, the words “one fine morning” came to me. One fine morning, what? It occurred to me that at our best moments, on our fine mornings, our future is golden. “Soon” we will buy the right IPO and get rich on stock. “Soon” our spouse will recognize how brilliant we are. “Soon” our lives would make sense. Year-by-year, though, we have less future, and the current always is against us. If we can’t be golden or can’t be recognized or can’t find sense this year, when? Or how? I wish I knew. Bert looked unusually content, as if he knew but couldn’t explain. Maybe, I surmised, only when you are dying do you know what is truly valuable. - from The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, page 29 -'

Another theme that recurs throughout the collection relates to the idea that we may not always really know someone. Meeks examines relationships, specifically those of girlfriend/boyfriend and husband/wife and reveals the doubt and secrets hidden beneath a seemingly perfect exterior.

'As Darryl lay back, staring into the afternoon sky, he wondered could Cheryl have an affair? No. She was a work junkie and too cynical to have another relationship. If she were having an affair, she’d have to schedule it. Spontaneity was not her suit. - from High-Occupancy Vehicle, page 123 -'

Meeks’ ability to reveal the very human traits of his characters is one of his strengths. Behind the confident exteriors of some of his male characters lies doubt, fear and vulnerability.

'He hadn’t had any sex for several months, and he wondered if he were no different than salmon, swimming up the river to Ralphs. His genes put him in jeans and had him troll among wedges of cultured milk products to woo the way pilots needed planes or Rustoleum needed rust. Who would want him: Awkward, so damn needy, and with a cowlick? - from The Fundamentals of Nuclear Dating, page 137 -'

Throughout the collection, the reader is treated to Meeks’ black humor and sharp eye for the foibles of humanity. His characters are flawed and at times a bit eccentric. For example, in Shooting Funerals a young woman named Vicky begins to question her relationship with her boyfriend who is resisting marriage. In an effort to establish her independence, Vicky decides she will turn her love of photography into a funeral based business.

'On the way home, Vicky pictured in her mind all the shots she invented but did not get: the executor’s cutting of the cake at the reception, the widow’s tossing of a faded rose - both of which she thought might become standard shots at funerals. her best creation would have been having the family stand in two rows, their backs to each other to create a corridor where no faces could be seen. The main bereaved person, in this case the widow, would then solemnly walk down the aisle of backs, throwing rice on everyone’s shoulders, symbolizing, Vicky felt, tears as well as the idea of rebirth. - from Shooting Funerals, page 79 -'

My favorite story in this collection was The Rotary which is narrated by a young man who is sitting at the bedside of his dying grandfather. He reflects on his grandfather’s “possible past” which also leads to him imagining how his parents met and married.

'Should I shout from the sidelines, “No, no, no?” That you will marry and divorce and marry and divorce, like yo-yos searching for the perfect spin? Should I say that Henry, my father, is a wonderful man, but they’re not right for each other, and my sister and I will be confused? That we, too, as adults will join the spin of serial marriages? Then my own biology, too, impulsively calls: marry, marry - make me be. Let me grow up and sail with my grandfather and learn about running with the wind. - from The Rotary, page 64 -'

In this beautiful story about a man’s love for his grandfather and the fragile connections between people. Meeks writes: Our lives turn on the stupidest things.

Yes. A simple truth which resonates through each of Meeks’ short stories.

Christopher Meeks has written a collection of stories which appeal in their simplicity and honesty. As with his second collection (Months and Seasons - reviewed here), The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea is a book I can recommend to readers who love short stories. ( )
  writestuff | Dec 30, 2008 |
In his first short story collection, Christopher Meeks uses effective prose to provide us with a variety of emotions and real life situations in compact form. Each story gets its own few pages to shine and again delivers a singular emotion or effect, almost effortlessly evoking emotions in the reader. According to the back of the book, many of these stories have been published elsewhere before, and I’m not surprised.

I was really pleased to discover that Meeks is proficient at one of my absolute favorite story techniques, what I generally call the slow reveal; it’s when you go along and at first everything seems perfectly normal, slowly gets worse until you realize what must have gone wrong, but it doesn’t hit you until it hits the character and delivers a great climax. “He’s Home” shows off this particular type of story-telling.

My favorite, however, would be a contest between the title story, “The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea”, and another later on, “Engaging Ben”. It’s hard to describe short stories effectively for me; I think it’s best going into them blind. I can say that the first involves a surprise and deals an emotional blow to the reader (and to the characters), while the second involves a couple struggling nearly as soon as they get engaged. Both of these stories engaged me emotionally and I really connected with them and felt for the characters involved, even though I’d known them for only a few pages.

I’d absolutely recommend this book. All of these stories are terrific and I’m looking forward to more work from Christopher Meeks!

http://chikune.com/blog/?p=245 ( )
  littlebookworm | Oct 7, 2008 |
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