Late Stories, by Stephen Dixon. Chicago, Illinois: Curbside Splendor Publishing, September 2016. 250 pages. $9.95, paper.
In Stephen Dixon’s intricate story cycle Late Stories, author and retired university teacher Phil Seidel exists alone in the Baltimore home where he and his late wife Abby raised their daughters. Though Phil exercises at the YMCA, shops at the local market, and occasionally dines at his favorite restaurants, he struggles to venture any more from his home, even though he misses cultural events, entertainment, and social affairs that he once enjoyed with Abby. Instead, Phil has settled into an existence so routine that he can foretell the circumstances his daughters will discover upon entering his home after his death. The consequences of his routine life are severe loneliness, delirium, and physical deterioration. Or, is it that his routine life is the consequence of depression from losing his lifelong love? Objects, memories, and dreams recycle through Phil’s thoughts with steady reminders of what he’s missing with Abby gone, and periodic phone calls from his two daughters and his sister are more interruption than solace. Phil hopes to develop a romantic relationship to satisfy his yearning for sex, but he also believes romance might reverse his physiological and psychological decline. Unfortunately for Phil, his hopes rest on an ex-fiancé who’d never committed to anyone for very long and a former favorite student thirty-five years his junior.
Stephen Dixon presents a complex protagonist that reveals the unfavorable circumstances of surviving one’s true love. For example, in “Alone,” Phil portrays the heartbreak of losing a lifelong partner when dreaming of Abby. He disappointedly wakes before they make love, but expresses his joy that he “at least got to kiss her.” He then shuts his eyes, hoping to dream of her again. “Cape May” captures the impact of Abby’s unexpected demise and the anguish of unfulfilled plans through Phil’s recollection of bird-watching trips to the coast and a favorite restaurant that served oysters Abby savored. Phil’s self-torture projects from stories such as when he recalls a premarital affair in “Two Parts.” Phil had exploited an infatuated woman for sex. After sharing the story with Abby, Phil inquired about whether or not she knew he “could be such a louse.” In “A Different End,” Phil regurgitates his regret of colluding with a friend against feverish Abby. Despite Abby’s protests, the two overpowered her wishes to stay home and convinced her to accept transport via ambulance. Abby died two weeks later, leaving Phil to wonder if the stress of quarreling had shortened Abby’s life when he’d attempted to prolong it. Though Phil agonizes over his conduct in these and other stories, beneath each moment readers will find deep commitment and abiding respect for his true love.
Of course, true love would be a worthless endeavor without the benefaction of the perfect companion, and Dixon unveils many reasons why Abby was Phil’s. In “The Girl,” readers discover that Phil’s desire for a woman that “looked like some of the brainier girls he knew” but more attractive spawned in his late teens. In the early stages of their relationship, Phil visits Abby in “Intermezzo” and stops outside her apartment door, listening to her play piano. He remembers thinking, “How lucky can you get? Having a woman you love who loves you and who can play such beautiful music so beautifully?” In “That First Time,” Phil revisits the details of the first time he made love with Abby, including sharing her toothbrush. He shares the moment he cried at their wedding and thought “this is the happiest moment in my life” in “One Thing to Another,” and despite losing Abby to MS, he imagines how empty his life would have been if Mike Seltzer had beat him to Abby by seconds at Brad’s Christmas party in “Missing Out.” Phil is not perfect. Even discussing his writing in “Feel Good,” he admits that he makes “a lot of mistakes, and then makes mistakes correcting the mistakes.” However, he is passionate about writing, and even more passionate about his late wife.
Phil’s comprehensive interiority arouses an intimate relationship between Dixon’s protagonist and his readers. In addition to yielding memories and dreams, Phil divulges calculated details from his circumstances, how he justified decisions, the processes by which he analyzed circumstances, the reasoning behind his drawn assumptions, and even how he planned futile futures from eager fascinations of women. Phil’s interiority supplies the infrastructure of Dixon’s collection, but also reveals the masterful consistency with which Dixon maintains the realistic episodes of his complex creation.
In addition to his precision, Dixon constructs clever language schemes that invite the reader into the nucleus of his protagonist’s emotions. The collection starts with Phil summarizing his life with Abby in reverse chronological order from her death to the moment they first met in “Wife in Reverse.” Dixon reveals Phil’s delirium with pronoun shifts from he to I in “Talk” and further stories depicting Phil’s stirring interactions with the late Abby, which suspend awareness that she is dead. In “Go to Sleep,” Dixon employs no as a conjunction when Phil envisions and re-envisions memories of making love to Abby and corrects his memories of the manner in which she expressed herself. Most importantly, Dixon’s modest, simplistic style of language provides the reader with a smooth, comfortable rhythm that harmonizes nicely with the complexity of emotion and interiority. Readers will enjoy the depth of thought combined with the economy of language in a generous collection of stories. Aspiring writers will benefit from studying a model of how efficiently language can be conducted.
Many of the stories in the collection were published in different literary magazines, winning honors that include The O. Henry Prize and the Pushcart Prize; yet, Dixon’s consistency throughout reads like a novel, and at times, induces the idea that the stories of author Philip Seidel are covertly the autobiography of his creator. Still, readers are certain to discover themselves intimately involved in Phil’s experiences and to examine their own lives as a result.
James W. Davidson, Jr. studies creative writing, philosophy, and business at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in 50-Word Stories, Mulberry Fork Review, Gravel Magazine, The Bookends Review, and Poetry Quarterly. He lives in South Carolina with his wife and two sons.