Train Shots by Vanessa Blakeslee

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


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Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press, 2014), winner of the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction, is a collection of stories that are shots of life taken at various angles on Main Street. The stories are populated with average people who are stuck and struggle to rise. They are people who probably wouldn’t get a second look if one were to pass them by, yet certainly deserve the attention from Blakeslee’s telling.

Beginning with the first story, “Clock In,” the reader is immediately pulled into a one-sided conversation between a restaurant worker who addresses a silent new hire. The interesting part is that the story is told completely in monologue and in a second-person point-of-view narration. It is quite extraordinary because it is not easy for a writer to pull off as most stories are written in third-person or first-person narration. The coolest part is that the reader becomes a participant by default and has a more intimate experience as they might imagine themselves as a character in this thoughtful and finely-crafted flash story.

Story by story, character by character, Blakeslee’s range of emotional depth and voice tugs the reader from place to place. One tantalizing moment captured so elegantly was in “Welcome, Lost Dogs where the main character, an expatriate living in Costa Rica, experiences a deep catharsis as she grapples with her own humanity and finds meaning in loss:

There are three kinds of grief: the grief of the definite, for what once was and is now gone; the grief of the indefinite, where there are no answers and so the worst is suspected; and the grief of the inevitable, for what must be lost and whose future must be abandoned.

This beautiful theme resonates in all the stories.

The first two stories have a Steinbeckian feel and seem to point a bony finger at the setting as the reader glances beyond the characters at working class life, poverty, prejudice, and a vast loneliness that surpasses hunger. In other stories, characters appear to walk on the sunnier side of the street. They seem to have it all but are lost and broken from their sorrows and regrets like the widower in “Hospice of the Au Pair,” who self-medicates with sex and morphine and Blakeslee’s grownup child-singer-star in “The Princess of Pop who checks into an infamous hotel with dark thoughts on her mind. Darker still is the story, “Barbeque Rabbit”: a mother suspects something unsettling about her child and remains inert too long.

Another vantage point that Blakeslee captures with her lens is about couples—couples that struggle with the big questions in their relationships like the woman who is caught up in the downfall of her rich, sugar-daddy-like corporate fiancé in “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” She recalls the beignets; a simple pastry shared during happier times, and comes to a deeper realization of how important it is to live in the moment because the moment is all that matters. She states:

…even to walk around and eat beignets and watch the passersby was no longer a small thing, but rather the heartbeat of life itself.

Blakeslee’s close-up shots also reveal the afterimages and cracks in relationships not always visible to the naked eye such as in the May–September relationship of a new couple who are beginning to lose their luster in “The Sponge Diver.” In “The Lung,” a charming young man must choose between a part of himself and the love of his life. In “Uninvited Guests,” another character—a young mother—weighs a different set of choices. Most poignant of all is the engineer in the cover story, “Train Shots,” who suffers profoundly from the consequences of a tragedy that he unwillingly participates in.

Vanessa Blakeslee’s story collection is thoughtful and alluring and crafted with edgy elegance. Rich stories that chronicle everyday people and their hidden struggles as they travel along the avenues of hope, despair, and destiny.

*

Vanessa Blakeslee‘s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, Toasted Cheese and many others. She is the winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize and has been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Blakeslee earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, she is a longtime resident of Maitland, Florida.

pencilShelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

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