Buzzed Books #10 by Jimmy Newborg
Michael Carroll’s Little Reef
“Imagine being this hungry and feeling sated, just like this, at the same time.”So closes “Barracuda,” the third story in Michael Caroll’s debut collection, Little Reef. This line carries with it its own sating effect, and is an appropriate statement for the book as a whole. Characters from Maine to Florida to New York City find themselves caught in various internal tugs of war–reality and dreams, youth and aging, satisfaction and discontent, one margarita or two.
Many of the stories tackle familiar subject matter, but Carroll avoids cliché with characters who are complex, and dialogue that is often both realistic and compellingly fraught. In “Referred Pain,” the reader is introduced to Diane. Though she is clearly dissatisfied with her life, her character transcends the two-dimensional, bored wife trope. Married to an “extremely popular” creative writing professor, she feels drawn to one of his students, a young woman named Taylor. As a party at their home winds down, Diane has an urge to confess to Taylor that she had an affair with a twenty-five year old boy, “for no reason except that it would be nice to confess something for once in her life…She thought Taylor could have been her friend.” But when Taylor reveals to Diane her desire to marry and have a sexually open relationship with her gay friend, Jesse, Diane becomes almost hateful, though this makes her feel “old and nervous and somehow afraid.” The connection she feels with the younger woman is laced with discomfort: Taylor speaks as if maddeningly sure of herself. We don’t subscribe to labels,” Diane says at one point, mimicking Taylor, “Don’t pin labels on us, we’re special.” Diane escapes the fight by going to her room to lie down. “It didn’t pay, and she’d never do it again, to entertain these obnoxious, self-loving kids.”
Just as the old and the young interact in the stories of Little Reef, so do the urbane and the provincial. The reader is taken from professor’s homes to Manhattan gay bars to small-town Florida to Memphis, Tennessee. The South echoes throughout the book, evoking the fiction of Alan Gurganus. “Pascagoula,” the sixth story in the collection, takes place in Memphis. The narrator, a middle-aged gay man (who is more accepting of his life than Diane, but equally as world-weary) meets a young and pretty boy at a gay bar and takes him home. At first he is made “nervous” by the boy and feels a “neediness or something worse” coming from him, but “he was too pretty and too here to ignore.” Again, Carroll evades cliché by making the sex between them little more than an aside: “It wasn’t much.” What’s important is their interaction, where Carroll employs his strong dialogue to reveal the perspectives of his characters. The characters speak to each other with a defensive flippancy about the most serious of matters. “You’re going to die,” the boy, Trevor, says. “I know,” is the narrator’s response.
As the book moves into its second part, called “After Memphis,” (Part One is called “Before Dallas”), the stories become more dreamy and introspective, though there are a number of bitingly accurate discussions between the main character, Scott, and his family in the story “First Responder.” When Scott protests his mother calling him “an author,” she comes up with “But you know what I mean, thinking into people’s minds.” Thinking into people’s minds is precisely a writer’s job, and Carroll does it well. Scott and his older lover, a famous author named Perry, are recurring characters in Little Reef. We find them again in the story, “Avenging Angel.” Perry has had a stroke, the traces of youthful idealism exhibited by many of the characters in the stories before it are brilliantly contrasted when he recalls a conversation with an older poet several years earlier, the poet having told Perry, then in his 60s, “I was your age, I felt great, young. Now everything’s going wrong.”
Despite what some of the characters may say or do, they are not hopeless, and the book provides wit, humor and charisma as much as it does melancholy and disappointment. Part of growing up is learning the lesson that we are never finished growing up. With probing, skillful prose, Carroll portrays this universal concept amongst a breadth of characters and locations. Readers of fiction by Bernard Cooper, Amy Bloom and Armistead Maupin will find themselves at home in the pages of Little Reef, but the rich and varied landscape of the book should appeal to most.
Pair with: Two margaritas.
Jimmy Newborg‘s fiction has appeared online in Little Fiction and drafthorse: a literary journal. His non-fiction has appeared in Nylon GUYS magazine. He holds an M.F.A. in Fiction from the Bennington College Writing Seminars. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.