"Listen: If you can find a collection of stories more cohesive, more ambitious in reach, more generous in its passion, and fancier in its footwork, I will buy it for you and deliver it in person." Lee K. Abbott, judge of the 2015 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction
From the first page I knew I was going to like reading the stores in The Last Words of the Holy Ghost, Matt Cashion's prize winning stories.
The press release tells it like this:
"The Last Words of the Holy Ghost, a
collection of 12 Southern Gothic short stories, showcases
a range of dynamic voices, characters, and settings, from
the fourteen-year-old boy who speaks in tongues to the
burned-out health-care administrator whose life changes
during a trip to Wal-Mart."
The first story, The Girl Who Drowned At School That Time, starts with tragedy: a girl has drowned in the school pond. The school board quickly votes to fill the pond in to prevent any more drownings. It is the only responsible and sensible thing to do. Except...what to do with the fish that live in the pond? Things get complicated. It's always the small problems that cause trouble.
One man volunteers to fish them out. But they can't have one man catch and keep all the fish. They are school property after all. The fish have to be disposed of in a fair and equal way. And the fisherman already has a freezer full of catfish. The brilliant solution: have a fish fry. Plus they could raise money off the fish fry.
I was delighted by these strange folk who turn death and loss into a money making scheme! Isn't this how things work in real life, in small towns and small groups everywhere? We agree on the "big issues" and haggle over the small stuff. And--any excuse to have a party.
The responsibility to organize the event is pawned off to a secretary, a college student recently returned home. She has no intention of staying. Every day she thinks she'll quit. She sees the poverty, the ignorance, the neglected children, and the good ol' boys, and determines to leave town. Still she stays. She hasn't a clue how to pull off this fish fry. Meantime the exterminator, a veritable encyclopedia of American vermin, is pursuing her. He offers his help. At a price. The story is hilarious and dark and too true to life.
The last story, The Funeral Starts at Two, brought the book to a poignant conclusion. A man is supposed to take his father-in-law to the funeral of his brother. The father-in-law delays, enjoying his salt water pool and weaving tales about family members the son-in-law has never known. Wacky characters who would rather lift a horse, one end at a time, over a fence than go around. Who travel east to go west to be a cowboy. The son-in-law envies the older man's easy laugh. He wishes he knew more people who could laugh like that.
Parting brings a sad knowledge of how time and distance will come between them before they meet again--if ever in this life. As he drives away, the son-in-law sees "all the other ghosts who were also waving," the storied people so vividly drawn by the old man, who he can not forget.
That is the goal of a story-teller: to make people so real, in situations so real, that on closing the book these characters travel with us on our journey home.
Matt Cashion is that kind of story-teller.
To read the title story The Last Words of the Holy Ghost online click here.
I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
The Last Words of the Holy Ghost
by Matt Cashion
University of North Texas Press
ISBN: 978-1-57441-612-1 paper
Publication Date: November 15, 2015