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The Houses of Children (American Literature…

The Houses of Children (American Literature (Dalkey Archive))

by Coleman Dowell

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The winter like a huge snake wrapped its gray coils about the countryside.A collection of short stories culled from a lifetime of writing by an individual who worked chiefly in the novel form can be a hit-or-miss affair. Dowell collected these himself just before his death (at his own hand). Note that it is his collected and not his complete stories, so these are what we'd imagine Dowell thought to be his best. They all appeared originally in various notable literary journals and anthologies. Three of them were written prior to his becoming a novelist. I wish I knew the publication dates of the others, but that data was lacking in this volume and I haven't looked it up.

Having not yet delved into Dowell's novels (though having eyed Island People and Too Much Flesh and Jabez), I wasn't sure what to expect. There is now no doubt in my mind that the man was a writer of fine skill with a brilliant mastery of language (and I will be getting to those novels). What I found interesting, and somewhat distracting, was the variation in styles among these stories. It seemed as if Dowell had used the short story form as a staging ground for his stylistic experimentation, extending as it did over 25 years of writing. There are several Southern gothic tales, at least one surrealist story, one fablesque story (though lacking any obvious moral at the end), one that felt mythic, one that read like prose poetry, and various other examples falling somewhere on the realist spectrum though nearly always somewhat off enough to puzzle the reader. The final story of the collection, 'The Silver Swanne', is striking in its execution: a swirling vortex of dark gothic metafiction reflected for perpetuity between two cracked and blood-smeared gold gilt mirrors. It merits a few re-reads, for sure. (This story and the more Southern gothic ones were my favorites, and had the entire collection been written in these styles, it would likely have been a four or five star book for me.)

Even in those stories that open with realist benignity, Dowell's endings nearly always refuse predictability. He also plays with time, so that past, present, and future tend to mingle, separate, and converge again. Often it is difficult to place a given story in a specific historic or geographic context. All of these elements usher the reader into a disorienting fugue state. Upon emerging, one is never quite sure what has been read, never mind fully comprehended. So the book is put aside in favor of sleep and dreams, where somehow it begins to make sense.It was my favorite hour, midnight—that perfect hour when struggling day has been completely devoured, its tail disappearing down the throat of night. ( )
  S.D. | Apr 4, 2014 |
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