Thursday, January 3, 2013

Fiction Review: 'The Shame Of What We Are' By Sam Gridley

When readers first meet Art Dennison, the preteen is waking up in a hospital, though readers won't discover why for many chapters. In the next chapter, Art is only four years old. Exploring an abandoned lot where a house has been demolished, he climbs a pile of broken windows and gashes his leg. Starting with that scar, Art has a hard time distinguishing between wounds self-inflicted and otherwise. He is, in some ways, wiser than his college dropout mother and engineer father, even at that age. He detects their strangeness and distance from him early on.

He's also aware of his own eccentricities. The loss of blood at age four left him feeling lightheaded, and somehow Art senses the feeling never really went away. He'll never understand his "difficult" baby sister Katie or quite fit in with any of his peers. At one point, he lives across the road from a glorious California beach for weeks without ever realizing the water and sand are there.

Art Dennison has a quirky sense of humor. It grows with him as he ages to a high school senior by the end of the book. His tale can be humorous, though the humor often takes a poignant turn. Like the tale of Laika, the little dog with the white streak on her muzzle whose life was sacrificed in the interest of space exploration, Art's survival in his parents' bizarre 1950s world is both inspirational and sad.

Sam Gridley calls 'The Shame of What We Are' "a novel in pieces." The subtitle describes the way Gridley wrote it. Chapters appeared as independent short stories in the literary magazines Amarillo Bay, Juked, Quay and Superstition Review. Still, it never reads like a collection of short stories. This is a unified novel, with hints of what's to come in the earliest chapters, speaking to Gridley's ability to imagine Art Dennison's world in all its sticky, sunlit detail.

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