Buzzed Books #7 by Mark Pursell
Vanessa Blakeslee’s Train Shots
In “Princess of Pop”, the eighth of eleven stories that comprise Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut collectionTrain Shots, Blakeslee gives a voice to one of our most exposed yet tight-lipped pop culture titans: Britney Spears. In a gutsy move that could have easily backfired or lent itself to lazy satire, Blakeslee assumes the mantle of a Spears-esque pop sensation pacing the dimensions of her luxury hotel room, hemmed in physically and psychologically by the paparazzi, the suits she works for, her fame, and her own fears about being a woman and a mother. Blakeslee immerses us in the claustrophobia of the singer’s tightly-controlled world with sensitivity and an eye towards fairness, falling neither on the side of the tabloids who sensationalize and capitalize on the erratic behavior of celebrities nor on the side of apologists who paint spotlight seekers as victims of media run amok. It’s a remarkable story and, due to its conceit, the flashiest you’ll find in Train Shots—the other characters that populate the collection’s pages are people like you and me, fast food workers and lovelorn expatriates, troubled parents and clashing couples—but strangely enough, it’s this pseudo-Britney story that brings its more conventional cousins into sharper focus. The characters in Train Shots are all trapped to varying degrees, caught between choices, addictions, and threats over which the protagonists have little control. It’s easy to imagine a pop star bowing under the immeasurable financial and cultural pressures applied to her, but in the ten other stories Blakeslee shows that we are all bearing up under our own pressures—financial, cultural, and otherwise—and that feelings of paralysis are not merely the province of those under public scrutiny.
Consider the unnamed, second-person protagonist of “Clock In”—which imagines the wall-eyed stupor of a fast-food wage slave—or the young woman in “Don’t Forget the Beignets” who, faced with the arrest of her money-laundering boyfriend, must decide whether to stand by her man or cut him loose. The time-honored space between a rock and a hard place is a familiar habitat for Blakeslee’s characters, but she doesn’t let them off the hook, or try to comfort the reader with easy solutions or hollow optimism. A different writer tackling these same characters and situations might have produced work that erred on the side of nihilism, or, oppositely, attempted to address emotional entrapment through hamfisted catharsis or redemption. But in Train Shots, epiphanies are ephemeral and momentary, resolving like dust motes in sunlight only to slip out of view if you move in the slightest. The answers that the characters grasp for materialize but rarely and reluctantly stay put. Blakeslee delicately forges a path somewhere between these two poles, and in doing so succeeds in depicting human nature with as much “truth” as it is possible to arrive at.
The author’s prose goes a long way towards helping her achieve this effect. Her sentences unwind with a rangy grace, only stopping to call attention to themselves in quick imagistic bursts before comfortably settling themselves once more. Never is this more apparent than in the collection’s most memorable and successful story, “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” in which one of the aforementioned lovelorn expatriates, languishing in rural Costa Rica, attempts to hunt down her stolen dogs. The dusty, sun-blasted landscape rises up all around our protagonist in mirror of her growing desperation. The knife of an assailant glints cold and dangerous in the dawn. Meanwhile, within, the woman flutters between the past and the future, attempting to reconcile the imminent death of a former lover with her own ambivalence about what to do with herself or where to go now. She twists against her circumstances, caught on them as if by barbed wire, and Blakeslee follows the convoluted paths of her protagonist’s turmoil using the same line-by-line precision with which she etches the light and flavor of her settings.
This juxtaposition of external and internal conflicts is a well-used tool in any author’s box, but it’s easier said than done to pull off effectively, much less with aplomb. Blakeslee wisely avoids sentimental frippery and excessive figurative posturing when going down this route. Consider “The Sponge Diver”, where a sexually-anxious young woman finds herself confounded when a sanitary sponge refuses to dislodge from inside her. It’s a predicament equally tinged with humor and panic, but the most remarkable thing about it is that it plays out without the metaphorical heavy-handedness one might expect.
Perhaps that is the most remarkable thing, in the end, about Train Shots; that Blakeslee plumbs the deep waters of love, disconnection, and the purpose of life without succumbing to the weight of pretension. The title story, which concludes the collection, tackles a subject no less complex or overexposed than mortality; in it, a railroad engineer confronts his growing bewilderment after a young woman throws herself in front of his train. Deeply shaken and haunted by the memory of a previous, similar incident, the engineer loses himself in drink, capitalizing on the sympathy of college girls; at the bar, the staff pass around “train shots” whenever a locomotive goes rumbling past. Blakeslee doesn’t sledgehammer this conceit, which gives the haunting, melancholy nature of it room to breathe and take its own shape in the reader’s mind. There is something sadly human about throwing back an ounce of tequila as a train—that industrial age symbol of greed, progress, and all their attendant casualties—thunders by. It is both toast and resignation. Which, strangely enough, is an apt encapsulation of this artful, elegiac collection.
Pair with: tequila shots (of course).
Mark Pursell (Episode 75) is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can most recently be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.