Samuel Ligon, Drift and Swerve (Autumn House Press, 2009)
In 1792, William Blake indicts the city of London by invoking the metaphor of its abominations running in blood down city walls. A vision of running blood transformed into a legible urban text allows as well the romantic notion of that same blood serving as an inkwell for the urban writer. In his first story collection, Drift and Swerve, Samuel Ligon dips into that well, and renders his vision of America: keening and cacophonous, raucous and ecstatic, forsaken, rejected, a people cursed with a hope for human connection—one that often eludes them. In “Orlando,” Nikki thinks about a man she’s just met on a bus: “She can’t tell if she feels bad for judging this David or for misjudging him, thinking when they first started talking that she could maybe like him . . . But she’s just tired is all, tired and stupid, thinking without even trying, without even meaning to, that what? She’s going to get off the bus with this guy in Little Rock and start some kind of life there in love?”
Men lose their way. There’s Hugh, in “Vandals,” who, to protect his family, will go to such violent lengths that he risks losing everything in the process. There’s Stack, in “Heavy Bag,” who, while his wife is at work, seduces a girl “young enough to be (his) sister.” And then there is the narrator of “Animal Hater,” whose wife leaves him to raise his daughter by himself. In between father-daughter trips to the Bronx Zoo and kitchen-table chats, he and a new woman engage in an S&M relationship that makes 9 and 1/2 Weeks look like something on the Lifetime network: “The trick is in marking without going too deep. You run the point of the [knife] blade against the bottom of one foot . . . then up her calf . . . over her thigh to her groin . . . up around her belly button and under a breast . . . Sometimes she flinches or strains toward the blade, pulling against the nylons holding her down.” In his marriage’s aftermath, the narrator craves intimacy. But his attempt to make a genuine connection with this woman gets derailed by their intense sexual relationship, which, paradoxically, creates a greater emotional distance between the two. Ultimately, this man’s love for his daughter and sense of duty as a father brings him to a crisis point, and moves the story toward an ending that is as subtle as it is devastating.
A cycle of four stories center on Nikki, a teenage runaway and drug-user who washes dishes in lesbian bars. Nikki is tough, cynical, fiercely intelligent, and sexually uninhibited. Her stories are distributed out of chronological sequence throughout the book, a placement that enacts upon the reader an effect similar to the disorientation the characters themselves experience. Although Nikki is almost as naturalistically determined as Crane’s Maggie, the four stories allow her to accrue character, complexity, and a compassion that is as genuine as it is heartbreaking, a compassion that attests to her emotional depth and foreshadows the life-and-death decisions she will be forced to make.
If one theme unites this collection, it is that of movement—but not the forward kind. Rather, it is a static freneticism, a chaotic dust storm of wheels spinning without traction. As they drift and swerve throughout the book, these bodies in motion ultimately discover that no one escapes the laws of inertia. Nikki turns eighteen on a bus crossing the country. As she looks out the window, assessing her life, even the sentence syntax swerves to keep up with the momentum of her thoughts: “She thinks of Maya and Buckley and her, the three of them in bed last night, this morning, two days ago, whenever it was, (having sex), how she could tell Maya and Buckley were made for each other, a sort of gauzy halo around them, but now, half drunk, half hung over, starving in a bus she’s been on forever, she knows Maya and Buckley have as much chance as anyone—none.”
Joseph Salvatore is the author of the story collection To Assume A Pleasing Shape (BOA Editions, 2011). He is the Books Editor at The Brooklyn Rail and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. He is an associate professor of writing and literature at The New School, in New York City, where he founded the literary journal LIT. He lives in Queens. @jasalvatore