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Leora Skolkin-Smith: Stop here by Beverly Gologorsky

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In the September 1874 Atlantic Monthly George Parsons Lathrop wrote in his essay, “The Novel and its Future:”

“Realism sets itself at work to consider characters and events which are apparently the most ordinary and uninteresting, in order to extract from these their full value and true meaning. It would apprehend in all particulars the connection between the familiar and the extraordinary, and the seen and unseen of human nature. Beneath the deceptive cloak of outwardly uneventful days, it detects and endeavors to trace the outlines of the spirits that are hidden there; to measure the changes in their growth, to watch the symptoms of moral decay or regeneration, to fathom their histories of passionate or intellectual problems. In short, realism reveals. Where we thought nothing worth of notice, it shows everything to be rife with significance.”

Beverly Gologorsky’s Stop Here is a poignant novel of contemporary realism. Her primary emotional themes are loneliness, a yearning to change the past, small town ennui, and resignation that this is the irrevocable life one has to sort out and put to rest. What is masterful in this work is how she weaves characters lives through a desolate and lonely atmospheric Long Island town.

Gologorsky’s prose is much like an Edward Hopper painting. She stays true to the stark nature of her themes and characters without a “drop of color… yet they shimmer” (a quote from a painter on the beach in the novel describing his own painting).

The narration is told with simple words, and the intense emotions underneath the narrative are not played up stylistically but left there on the page for the reader to read without linguistic trimmings. The power of the narration is an achievement that enters the reader’s consciousness slowly, like a cautious guest who has been invited into a place, which is, in part, forbidding.

Gologorsky takes on the ordinary and removes the “deceptive cloak, showing what is trembling below it.” as Lathrop wrote of realism. We might otherwise not actually notice these characters because they are so familiar to us. The dialogue is so real, they could be sitting at the same lunch counter with us.

The novel illuminates the lives of a handful of characters, but one feels that the Gulf War is also a haunting lurking character. The lives of the characters are all connected to a Long Island Diner called Murray’s, a twenty-four-hour dive and the perfect frame for the telling of their difficult lives.

For example there’s Sylvie, the new wife of the successful diner-owner Murray, who is a neoconservative, bullish man.

There’s Sylvia, a former actress, getting on in age and worried about a future without stability; she gives up a lot of who she is to gain the same. Left at home as her husband goes to run his diner, she is bored, restless, and empty. Sylvie discovers an elderly artist appearing to be on the verge of death, living in a seaside lean-to on the beach. Their conversations, though sounding at first a bit meandering and strange, give us one of the most moving examples of Gologorsky’s realism, and how she, as an unobtrusive narrator pulls off what Lathrop had said was ”the deceptive cloak of outwardly uneventful days, trace (ing) the outlines of the spirits that are hidden there.”

From a section of the novel we find the character, Sylvie, meeting up with the elderly painter on the beach:

He hands her (the character Sylvie) a bunch of paintings as easily as if they were sandwiches at a picnic. Winter beach scenes. White, gray, silver without a drop of color, yet they shimmer. Could these be the landscape she finds so forbidding, cold, and untouchable? She catches him staring at her.

“Too bleak for you?” he asks.

“No. The opposite. Is that how you really see what you see out there?”

“There’s no metaphor for the ocean, only how I feel when I try to capture it.”

“In this one the waves are ferocious. They’re filled with warning . . . ”

“Because my fingers were stiff and my knees hurting, the waves spoke to me of what’s impending.”

“Was that depressing?” Is she probing?

“At my age death is a comrade, a way of leaving, an exit.”

“I don’t believe everyone your age feels like that.”

Nothing about him seems tired or worn, though he must be near eighty.

“Maybe not. But there isn’t much I’ll miss. I love the beach, but I’m alone now. Do you have children?”

“No.”

“I had a son killed in 1970, in that dirty war.”

The sea, the sky, his death, his son’s. He says it all in the same matter-of-fact way:

“How awful,” she (Sylvie) finally says.

“It was worse than that.”

 

In addition to Sylvie’s story, there are alternating stories of three other women. Each character is presented in alternating chapters but they also mingle inside all the chapters.

Ava, a woman who has been devastated by her young husband’s death in Iraq, is trying to find a new hold on life, one that will include some security for her son.  She meets a man who initially attracts her, and she is quite taken by him. But then she discovers he had betrayed her at the same time as he had bonded as father with her son.

Mila, whose husband is in prison, is very worried about making ends meet because her daughter Darla is ambitious and Mila wants Darla to make something of her life, which includes a good college. But Darla wants to enlist in the army to escape her mother and the claustrophobic town.

And there’s Rosalyn, who believes she can shape her own life, although she, too, comes from a poor background. She does so until she becomes ill. She was also augmenting her inadequate income from the diner by moonlighting as an escort.

These four women and their everyday lives make up most of the book, but there are other characters, too. Each daily life struggle, though understated by Gologorsky’s simple telling, feels like an epic.

Interestingly, Gologorsky modernizes the concept of realism proposed as far back as 1874 by Lathrop. Another, more contemporary critic, William Harmon wrote: “Where romanticists transcend the immediate to find the ideal, and naturalists plumb the actual or superficial to find the scientific laws that control its actions, realists center their attention to a remarkable degree on the immediate, the here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable consequence”

In a literary environment of post modernistic fancy and very little realism, it is rewarding to find a book that shows us the “here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable consequences.” In this case I believe the Gulf War to be that action and the lives depicted its “verifiable consequence.” Even the sense of an impoverishment of spirit and money, is indirectly connected to the Gulf War and its impact on ordinary Americans.

Done artfully and authentically, Stop Here is a remarkable novel.

 

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Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of Hystera and Edges. You can stay up-to-date on her blog posts at her website.

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On February 8, 2015
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