Drops on the Water (Apprentice House, 2014) is a collection of short memoirs written by father and son authors, Eric G. Müller and Matthew Zanoni Müller. The individual narratives are separated by sections detailing author and setting, closing with two final stories from each author and an Afterward by Matthew. Their parallel stories are told in tandem chronicling their early childhood, school years, and young adulthood in Western Europe, Southern Africa, and America.
I really enjoyed reading the two introductory stories where Eric and Matthew introduce each other to the reader. Also, the father and son authorship adds a cool dynamic to the collection because they often appear in each other’s stories. In Matthew’s story, “Dorian,” he knows something bad has happened and describes Eric’s anguish in the moments before he reveals it to Matthew. “His face was bright and open before us, guilty, ashamed of itself, and his big floppy dark hair was catching the light off the kitchen ceiling and his mouth was showing all his teeth, helplessly…”
Movement is a common theme as the Müllers moved frequently. Many of the stories have exotic settings such as the Swiss Alps where a young Eric learns about the power of prayer in “The Prayer”; “The Beach in Nicaragua“ where teenage Matthew jumps into the surf and learns firsthand about the classic conflict, man versus nature; and South Africa where Eric traverses the landscape and finds himself in trouble in “Busted.”
Family is also the landscape that both authors draw their experiences from. There is a strong sense of self from both Matthew and Eric as they move about. What does it mean to be German-American? A young Matthew grapples with this idea. Eric, however, seems content to be a global citizen. Time and maturity play key parts in Eric’s writing experience and Matthew’s, too, while both write from very different ages and vantages.
Their voices are distinct and so very personal. Many of Matthew’s stories are about being in the moment, what it felt like to be in that one place at that one time. In “My Grandfather’s Gift,” he is introduced to his German grandfather, Opa Willie, at the airport and they escape together in a charming game of airplane; later, an older Matthew visits him in Germany. In this moment, Matthew discovers isolation and fear in a bad choice:
I was scared because I was the bad person in the family now, and even though everyone was nice they all agreed that what I had done was wrong… It was scary now to be on the outside of everyone…
Matthew’s writing is honest and quite brave in that he hits the nail straight on, capturing the shadowy side of human nature with all of its angst and grace. He also layers his story with evocative detail and beautiful sentences:
The air would be dim and thick through the curtains and all that Texas heat outside, and the incredible emptiness he must have woken to in the mornings, the absence thick in the house, as though an explosion had gone off and left a stunned silence just hanging there. (“In Their Room”)
Eric is funny, ironic, full of wonder and wanderlust much like a character in a film—part musician, hippie, rebel, and poet rolled into one. In “Streaking,” he describes the thrill of running naked across a public mall. “I felt hunted. A strange thrill charged through my blood—the adrenalin-rush slashed my fear. The turbo jets in my muscles took over and I picked up speed. I became invincible—Superman!”
Aside from being engaging, Eric’s stories are also jam-packed with descriptive details and rich language. “We fumbled with our guns, reloaded and shot. Still it flew, defying each pop, bang and boom, the wide wings moving awkwardly, though it disappeared with uncanny speed behind a koppie. Gone… Shells ejected, we stared gobsmacked across the empty veld” (“The Pheasant”). And “By now I was utterly lost, though I scurried around the key of E flat major like a beheaded turkey, hoping to find my way back to the melodic path—anywhere along the way would do…” (“Debut“).
Eric’s voice, though rich in humor and irony, also reveals much about the human condition such as with a friend’s apartheid revelation in “Confession“ to taking care of a beloved grandmother in “After Midnight“ to the “addictive” attraction of traveling barefoot for a year in “Barefoot“ to sweet introductions to his future young sisters-in-law via a keyhole in “Meet the Sisters.”
Eric and Matthew Müller’s stories have an intimate feel to them as if they are being told or retold to family and friends gathered around the holiday table or in front of a blazing fire. Indeed, I felt like such a guest seated in warm corner as I read each one. This calls to my mind the expression that we are the sum of our experiences or perhaps, better said from a writer’s standpoint, that we may indeed be the sum of our experiences, but we are also the sum of our stories and others’ stories, too. The Müllers’ Drops on the Water: Stories about Growing Up from a Father and Son echoes this idea. Moreover, how very precious and important these big and small moments are in our making, along with the people—near, dear, lost, and far away who populate them.
Eric G. Müller was born in Durban, South Africa, and studied literature and history at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Currently he lives in upstate New York, teaching, writing and playing music. Apart from Drops on the Water he has written three novels and a book of poetry. Poetry, articles and short stories have appeared in Lowestoft Chronicle, Gloom CupBoard, and various other journals, anthologies and magazines. Facebook: Eric Müller
Matthew Zanoni Müller was born in Bochum, Germany and grew up in Eugene, Oregon and Upstate New York. He received his MFA from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and is an Assistant Professor of English at Berkshire Community College. His writing has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, NANO Fiction, decomP MagazinE, fwriction: Review, Toasted Cheese, Prick of the Spindle, Halfway Down the Stairs, MiCrow, Literary Bohemian, Hippocampus Magazine, and numerous other magazines and journals. Facebook: Matthew Müller Twitter: @matthewzmuller
Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com