The Richard Peabody Reader was a great cabin fever read this winter; the anthology gracefully covers Peabody’s range, depth, and humor. The Reader, compiled by Lucinda Ebersole is a mix tape of greatest hits from the Washington writer’s long career. Peabody is also a publisher of writers, the founder of Gargoyle literary magazine and Paycock Press, and organizer of regional readings and events. Along the way Peabody befriended Jamie Brown, the Broadkill’s editor, which is to say, dear reader, how I came to Facebook with Peabody, and this winter read and review his work. Full disclosure: I don’t know the man personally, but have a social media friendship with him, a smendship if you will. I reviewed his short fiction for the BKR some years ago, so the work within the collection was more or less all new for me. It’s a weekend of deep cuts, the collection is, a great reveal of humanity’s follies. The poetry collected here is the easy-peasy-lemo- squeezy free verse style that novelist and fiction writers do so well. That’s not a diss, either. Think Raymond Carver. Simple, direct, no fuss to it all; graceful and direct, but something verse-heads and formalists might dismiss as prosey. Consider “Good Hope Road” from the Read & Writing section, “his sharp features//like kudzu swallows Carolina red clay, “ or the opening line to “Folding Laundry in My Dreams” where Peabody speaks for almost every spouse or partner in any relationship when he says “I could fold laundry every day/for one thousand years/and never satisfy the women in my life.”
Peabody’s short fiction is a delight. Nothing’s too long for the commute (save for maybe “Sugar Mountain, a triptych”--which if you are fan of Neil Young is a delight to read), and Peabody nails suburban boredom, the kind that spirals into affairs, overblown pride, addiction and human stupidity. Peabody embraces violence, in the uber creepy “Peppermint Schnapps” a sleazy car salesman gets his just desserts, when a vengeful father and widow murders him out of long buried resentments surrounding his daughter’s pregnancy and suicide.
Family lies at the heart of Peabody’s work, those tangled, sticky, often unwanted relationships we nurture, starve, and nurture again, often leaving the reader on the emotional hook. That’s the beauty about short fiction, the reader gets one ending, but not the whole story. In “Walking on Gilded Splinters” it is only via the threats of a once homeless woman that drive the anti-hero back to his wife and family, and we feel that the marriage will fail, we almost want it too, because Wilson can’t control his libido or his ego, but we don’t get the luxury of finding out. Likewise in “Dresden for Cats” Uncle March is such an interesting personality, building cities for cats on his farm, allowing his cats to compose music, that we aren’t expecting his wife to turn up nuts, to turn the narrative upside down and end with a destroyed farm and stunned narrator, “You can pour all your love into somebody who’s mentally ill but they are big black holes, and you’ll never have enough love.”
The collection is gathered into sections; the thematic organizations allows for readers to experience Peabody of varying ages in each grouping; in a manner of speaking the reader can experience Peabody’s growth and breadth as a short fiction writer and poet in nearly every section. And what strikes me is his consistency as a writer, from his chosen subject matter to the clean line. I also love the pop culture references, which many writers cannot do well. Peabody’s up there with Stephen King, and Nick Hornby; who write about how movies, television, and music, especially music, affect our lives, and affect our reading of the story. Peabody knows when he conjures up, say The Grateful Dead, or Neil Young, or Nick Cave, that fans of the music will bring with them trunk loads of associations that enlarge the emotional narrative. Music and pop culture are as important as the time and place of the setting; cue-cards for the characters who often struggle to maneuver through the both the emotional and temporal setting of the story.
Peabody shows it all here, tragedy, humor, joy, wit, and irony, and speaks for a generation of adults who are still trying to figure it out in our age of decadence.