When Fondly arrived in the mail I tore open the package and stared at the cover for a second, looked at the back and thought, Yes that is an exploding face. I did not know what to expect from this book. I quickly found out that Fondly was not just a single book but two novellas. I poured some coffee and started to read the first novella, In One Story, The Two Sisters.
In the first book, there are sixteen short stories about two sisters, who are perhaps the same sisters throughout, perhaps not. Each story begins with descriptive summarizing titles like something out of a Melville novel. For example: “In one story, the two sisters lived in the country and were in love with the same old man” or “In one story, the two sisters took a tacit vow of silence.” Every tale in Winnette’s collection is vastly different from the one before it; in one the sisters are children looking through a secret keyhole; in another the two sisters are Nuns who find a mysterious river, and in yet another they’re Shel Silverstein writing a book about a giving tree.
The diversity from piece to piece kept me turning pages, but the stories are not without connections. Much like Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, In One Story, The Two Sisters shares the connective themes of estrangement and discovery. Winnette uses purposeful (but not overly) repetitive images or allusions in many of the stories so the reader feels a sense of unity. Even though the associations are meager he ultimately makes the reader feel love for the sisters.
Additionally, the use of trees and forests that is present throughout reminded me of the conjoining imagery in Zachary Schomburg’s The Man Suit. The reader will make connections between the stories that, for me, began to feel like lore from a fairy tale. In the first story an old man is zipped up in side of an Oak tree, “He climbed in…and the large crack running the length of the tree’s trunk just zipped up like the back of a dress…” A few anecdotes later a child of one of the two sisters’ says, “Mom didn’t tell us the full story of that tree…it will open itself up and swallow a man or a boy whole. Zip up its mouth like a set of blue jeans…” Reminiscent of how the Big Bad Wolf moves freely from Aesop’s to Grimm’s to many other works.
A couple days after digesting all that Two Sisters had to offer and with a cat comfortably arranged in my lap I started in on Gainesville. This is a collapsing family narrative that will plunge you into an elaborate web of generational drama, complete with sex, murder, escape, love and discovery.
Gainesville begins with Sonny, a troubled young man, chopping trees and stacking wood. Sonny has a older brother (primarily referred to as Sonny’s brother.) Only a few pages in readers are greeted with Sonny’s death, which turns out to be only the first death of many. And so the reader begins to learn the rules of Gainesville, as they’re transitioned from the story of Sonny, to Sonny’s brother, to Sonny’s brother’s kid, and so on down a long line.
One of my favorite scenes shows Mary Louise, a teenager (her connection to Sonny all but lost except to the reader) at a lake with a boy who is very determined to touch her breasts while he applies sunscreen to her back—Mary becomes uncomfortable but offers the boy a deal, a handful of sand—“If you eat the handful of sand, you can touch my entire breast…For fifteen seconds.” Mary Louise could easily been one of the virgins in a Eugenides novel.
After the boy chokes up the sand, unable to finish the proposed task, Mary Louise tells him to fuck off and hitchhikes her way home, an endeavor that culminates in a claustrophobic scene that could have been penned by Lewis Carroll’s dark twin:
The woods shrank around her. Trees were shorter and shorter…She was on her hands and knees all of the sudden, crawling over the caked earth. The branches snagged her hair…She crawled on her belly toward where the trees seemed to thin, where she would be able to stand, able to walk…
Winnette seemlessly blends modern story telling with allusions to a time when mysterious forests and their lore ruled the pages of fiction. He is able to dispense with a character, not callously, but in the fullness of time. Propelling his reader, like a river’s current, onward to the next character.
Perhaps the greatest achievement in this second novella, is Winnette’s pacing, which never relents and is always rewarding. The transitions from character to character are executed so well that I became excited for the next to appear—whether by birth, death or disappearance. And with each new appearance comes a slew of new happenings to enjoy: a flooding rain in which a man recalls his life, a forest that consumes a runaway girl, an unimaginably deep hole is dug by a boy in love. The intricacies and the sheer number of characters in Gainesville is impressive, making it impossible to do more than just touch the surface. To really feel the webbing of this collection a reread will be necessary.
Fondly has a refreshingly distinct vision and voice that, at times, left me breathless. Winnette doesn’t take any shortcuts. He pulls the reader into each character’s life without preamble. On a sentence level he’s playing with sharp hooks that embed the skin. As a whole, I couldn’t help intertwining one novella with the other. When reading Gainesville I found my mind wondering back to the two sisters in, In One Story, The Two Sisters, wondering if their lives somehow transitioned from their worlds into Gainseville‘s realm. Winnette is a talented writer and there is so much to see and do in Fondly, a whirlwind of character development and evaporation. It is a visceral book of self discovery, eulogistic familial drama and, at times, humor.
Ben Spivey is the author of two books, Black God (Blue Square Press, 2012) and Flowing in the Gossamer Fold (Blue Square Press, 2010). His writing has been published in places like elimae, PANK, and Abjective.