Things Kept, Things Left Behind is a coming-out celebration for a terrific writer named Jim Tomlinson. The inability to finish reading short story collections is one of my shameful flaws. I write the things, but I struggle to read them. I buy Best American Short Stories nearly every year, read several, let the rest languish. But the why of that failing is a subject for another blog because Things Kept, Things Left Behind is an exception–a group of short stories that captivated me.
You can begin with some of the names–Arnel Embry, Grandpa Coy, Dexter Chalk, Cousin Shuey– wonderfully evocative of the rural Kentucky environment where the stories are set.
You can go on to the smells.You’ll never run into a writer with a keener nose; and the images, impressive in themselves, don’t simply add texture to the prose, they become a primary tool for creating plot and character:
“She liked the familiar smell of him, slightly musky, with a hint of machine oil that lingered even after he’d showered. It was the smell of his work, the smell of lathes and grinders and milling machines. And it was not so different…from the smell of her father, the smell of locomotives.”
You can go on to the sentences–simple, clear, incisive, Carver-like. Try these:
“Sometimes she thinks of herself as a howl. The wail of a coyote, maybe, or a lone banshee, a shriek dying away in the night without reaching ears.”
“He feels the sting of her pity. It’s the last thing he wants from a wife.”
Add to these the common setting, the unerring sense of how psychological conflict evokes emotional and physical combat, and you end up with a series of tales that approach novelistic unity.
This is a debut collection, and the jacket notes say that Tomlinson is “hard at work on a novel.” I’d gladly read another collection from Jim, but I must confess, I’m really looking forward to the novel.
In the meantime, folks, go out and get this one. If you want an autographed copy, e-mail me, and I’ll tell you how.