WE’VE ALREADY GONE THIS FAR
by Patrick Dacey
Henry Holt & Co. (hardcover edition)
Picador Trade Paperback, 206 pages
Patrick Dacey’s story “Ballad“, which appears in the collection, was published in Cleaver’s Issue No. 6.
reviewed by Tyson Duffy
“The priest departs,” wrote Walt Whitman in 1871, “the divine literatus comes.” It’s something of an unspoken article of faith in American thought that without some guiding central dogma—whether literature, Christianity, democracy, ideology, “infopreneurship”—the individual is in danger of slumping forward like a marionette and falling uselessly to the floor. In the nineteenth century, Whitman ushered Protestantism out of the limelight and invited poetry to take its place as the new Dog Star that would shepherd American life toward a revitalized future. For only some—the Romantic poets, mainly—this made great progressive sense.
But these are strange times, a tough era in which to find nourishment for or even acknowledgment of the soul. Both our religious exigencies and our enthusiasm for literature—philosophical twins in parallel pursuit of divine enlightenment—continue, but in a manner that seems to have sapped them of any greater spiritual import. Christian fundamentalist groups aligned themselves this election year with a gold-plated presidential candidate who is a biblical illiterate, while one in a thousand of our humble writers will strike it rich with a million-dollar book contract yet may still find herself on a nationwide book tour of near-empty Barnes & Noble sitting rooms across North America. “The strangeness of life,” as Saul Bellow called it. “What if, for once, one were to yield to it?”
In Patrick Dacey’s first story collection, We’ve Already Gone This Far, available now in hardback and due out from Picador in paperback June 27, we find out what happens when we yield to life’s despiritualized strangeness in the twenty-first century’s overweening atmosphere of hogwild commercialism and ideological rigidity. (His first novel, The Outer Cape (Henry Holt & Co), will debut in hardback on the same date.) Dacey seems to be an interesting character himself in this regard, a bespoke and downtrodden seeker of his own soul adrift in corporatized America. The descriptions he’s given in interviews of a difficult youth and family life, the bouts of poverty he endured as an adult, are evidence of a nature informed largely by pain and wonder. His father was a gambler who went broke repeatedly and thereafter took his son on long door-to-door sales trips. Later, Dacey raised his own son while living hand-to-mouth on hourly wages, after studying under George Saunders and Mary Gaitskill at the Syracuse MFA program. The agony of the peripatetic writer undergoing economic uncertainties comes through strongly in his work; Dacey’s writing often reflects the rawness of material poverty, a certain yearning for inner enrichment or a scatterbrained longing that is as essential to his stories’ characters as their spinal cord.
In the story “Mutatis Mutandis,” for example, over-the-hill Nancy Dwyer submits her body to the vulgarizing scalpel of a television showman/plastic surgeon on The Dr. Jack Show. For her agonies, she does not attain super-model status as she might have hoped, but, far more essentially, a passing familiarity with her own soul.
Likewise, in “Never So Sweet”—among the best stories in the collection—a son watches his father yield to an ill-advised love affair with his dead brother’s girlfriend, Tutti; by the end, Tutti rejects her new beau and returns to an old flame, leaving both father and son behind. But it’s in the company of these confused, two-timing adults that the young son discovers his soul. Amid the domestic sexual intrigue of the father and new girlfriend, the boy finds himself suddenly paralyzed by the midnight adolescent horror “that there is nothing beyond the universe.” The well-meaning Tutti sits him down and brings him back to earth with a long, Zen-like call-and-answer chant: “I am not a boy … I am not a son … I have no eyes, no ears, no mouth, no body…” Neither of them could be aware of it, but the chant she leads him in is an example of what is called apophatic theology, a ritual as old as Greek philosophy: the theory that to describe the Spirit in terms of what it is not (rather than what it might be) brings one to a higher understanding of its essence. The scene is also an almost perfect rendering of the rational mystic philosopher Avicenna’s millennia-old “proof of the soul,” wherein simply to imagine oneself deprived of all five senses, as though trapped in a sensory deprivation tank, was sufficient to prove the existence of the human spirit, an entity as distinct from the body as the baby is from the baby carriage. If the boy in “Never So Sweet” desired a glimpse into his soul—as so many of Dacey’s characters unconsciously do—he finds it not in church nor through the literature of the ancients, but via the ministrations of Tutti, who emerges as a kind of mystic lay philosopher.
It is this sudden attainment of self-knowledge at a stage of life that seems beyond redemption, the resilience of the human spirit in a context of degrading abjection, that Dacey writes about with quirky eloquence. The stories work in patterns of resistance-and-release: confronted with ghastliness, self-deceit, failure, war (in the excellent story “Lost Dog”), or (in the case of a brief coming-of-age story with a too-long title called “To Feel Again the Kind of Love That Hurts Something Terrible”) the possible psychopathy of a beloved son, the characters fight back against their late transformations only to pass, at the last moment, imperceptibly into enlightenment. They’ve already gone this far, in other words, so the final step is almost unconscious. A wise but dim halo glows around their renewed heads by the final paragraph. It’s this kind of mild revelation, or “sudden spiritual manifestation” as James Joyce put it, that makes Dacey’s stories memorable.
A number of reviewers and interviewers commented on the idea that Wequaquet, the invented town where nearly all the stories take place, and the cast of recurring characters from humble Massachusetts precariat classes fully unite the thirteen stories into a “linked set.” Booklist called them “interlocking stories,” and one could even be forgiven for assuming that the collection is in fact a novel, since the jacket copy carefully avoids use of the phrase “short story.” The book design and cover give a gentle impression that what you’re holding in your hands is likely a novel. But I agree with critic William Giraldi who suggests that the “novel-in-stories” is a non-category of literature originally invented by promoters. Even when intended, such as the famous case of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the payoff for linked stories falls far short of that of a novel while never really adding anything new to the concept of the story collection. That certain invented working-class New Englanders (“George Falachi,” “Coach Fennahan,” “Donna Baker”) stroll through some of these stories seems a minor thing with regard to a substantive understanding of the work’s central themes. You will be none the wiser, in other words, for tracing the appearances of names and places throughout, and upon their repeated appearances nothing important or enlightening seems to hinge. The stories were published separately in various magazines over many previous years, so it’s hard to feel truly convinced that they’re weaved together as inseparably as wickerwork. And really, what would we gain if they were? “Each story should rightly achieve its own destination,” writes Giraldi. These stories do exactly that—and isn’t that enough?
Alexis de Tocqueville said, “Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests, in one word so anti-poetic, as the life of a man in the United States.” In a business culture such as ours, with a literal CEO crackpot as commander-in-chief, who can disagree with Tocqueville now? Dacey’s work is infused with subtle commentary on the “paltry interests” of both ordinary Americans and their landed superior classes. But what burns through, with a gem-like constancy, and will likely remain hot and bright in his future work, is the hunt for the neglected American soul, that throbbing eternal thing that still moils beneath the surface like an underwater turbine. It will never be too late, Dacey seems to say, for your soul to spring to life. In fact, it’s only when it’s too late, as well as too difficult and too unlikely, that it’s prone to reveal itself.
Tyson Duffy is a writer, editor, teacher, and translator. He’s a former Fulbright Fellow and a current fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center Writers’ Institute. His most recent fiction appears in the Carolina Quarterly Review. He lives with his wife in New York City.