Eric E. Wallace’s short story collection, Undertow, is one of the best collections I have read. Eighteen stories filled with so much “story.” The writing flows with authority in its language and with characters so richly rounded, so soulful. They laugh and they cry. And they strip down and bare themselves, sometimes bleeding on the pages, beginning with the first story, “Jericho,” where Wallace introduces readers to a former musician who has lost his way. The story climaxes in a moment of true clarity:
The improvisations soon took Jericho far away. He closed his eyes and was swept through all the years he’d missed, the brightness his life could have been.
Jericho is a complex character touched by grace. A character who knows himself well and makes no excuses. Beware! He’s a heartbreaker. He teases the reader with hope and yet remains true to his nature no matter where his choices lead.
Wallace conducts his stories similar to his main character, Petrie, in “Maestro”—
like a master, teasing with unpredictable progressions … challenging with unusual key changes, turning dissonance into joyful surprise, interweaving melodies of grace and beauty.
Such gorgeous prose! The stories are so intriguing and so rich that I can honestly say that I do not have a single favorite among them—I have many favorites. That’s a rarity for me. Typically with short stories I might like one or two, yet this is not the case with Undertow. The stories pulled me in and stirred me much like the “undertow” of the title.
I usually space out time between stories to savor each experience and reflect, but on a few occasions I decided to read just one more. Moments after pondering Jericho’s fate I was introduced to Maddie, the cab driver from “Meter Running,” a “wordy” story that drove me to distraction with its punchy main character and quirky sidekick characters who come and go in Maddie’s cab. Maddie thinks deep thoughts, dolling out little acorns of wisdom while avoiding pedestrians and squirrels and indecision in her sharp little Prius cab. What a character! When I stepped out of her story, I had a moment of reader’s déjà vu. I wondered if perhaps Jericho from the last story had taken a ride with Maddie, too. Maybe off-script, when I wasn’t reading…
How many times have I sat in traffic waiting for a signal from the flag guy in the orange vest? I met that guy, who has it all figured out, in a story called “Road Work” and then I read about another guy who is trapped, a wounded veteran who suffers from silent injuries. He sees perhaps the ghost of his future self in the “Long Road Home.” Other stories were wickedly funny. “Under the Hood” got me with the first line: “What was in the baby carriage?”
Wallace’s collection is also filed with couples—couples who are stalled like the composer and the mathematics professor, classy Edgar and Sylvia, with their snappy dialog and old-fashioned appeal, who, unlike the flagman, don’t have it figured out and who face some perilous situations in “Loch Ness Monsters.” And then there are those cozy young southern sweethearts in “Playing Doctor.” Carolee and Jiminy. They had me in the third paragraph: “She put one of her least favorite dolls down range, right there for Jiminy to shoot at with his twigs and rubber bands.” Then along comes a skunk and that changes everything…
The title story, “Undertow,” was all about setting and another couple whose story—I had the distinct feeling—would not end well for one or both of them. It gave me the jeepers.
A small white butterfly meandered over the opening. From underneath came a rush, a snarl, surging thunder. Fat, briny tendrils reached up, enmeshed the unwary creature, held it high in split-second triumph. Then the dark grasp of gravity dragged wave, foam and the insect into the slurping abyss.
Wallace’s technique is spot on. Eric Wallace’s stories made this reader fall in love with the short story form all over again.
Eric E. Wallace writes fiction, plays, poetry and humor. Eric’s work has been published in many journals and periodicals such as Alaska Quarterly Review, The First Line, Garbanzo Literary Journal, Pol Journal, Rosebud Magazine, Writer’s Digest, Idaho Magazine, Toasted Cheese and more, in eight anthologies, and online at WritersWeekly.com, where he has won several international short story competitions. Eric’s full-length drama, Syd, was produced at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. His shorter plays were read in seven northwest cities. Of recent years, Eric has concentrated on writing short fiction. A second collection of Eric’s short stories, Hoar Frost, was recently published by BookLocker in September 2015 and a third collection is in the works. He is currently researching a psychological novel set in contemporary San Francisco. Eric is a member of the Idaho Writers Guild. He lives in Eagle, Idaho.
Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com