In This Stillness: Courtney Harler Reviews What We Build Upon the Ruins and Other Stories by Giano Cromley

Giano Cromley’s collection begins with the title story, the first in a three-part exploration of sudden tragic loss and the ensuing ramifications of grief, as “What We Build Upon the Ruins” is linked to both “Human Remains” and “The Physics of Floating.” Eight other unlinked stories flesh out the collection, though all address the theme of family struggles. The three main stories not only bookend but also bisect the collection, offering an interesting approach to the genre of the collected short story. Immersed in these pages, readers can empathize with the many fraught elements of daily life, both the mundane and the unexpected.

These stories are domestic, and painful, in a modern but classically crafted kind of way. Cromley uses clean prose and simple but stunning metaphors to make seemingly banal moments resonate with intensity—he directs the reader’s attention to the stillness, to those tableaux of life that expand each individual’s consciousness. In “What We Build,” the eleven-year-old narrator Jack witnesses his younger brother charm an insect: “He held the moth out above his head until it thwipped its wings and took flight, in search of light or warmth or whatever moths seek” (19). In “Stormy Night,” one couple judges another unhappy couple, unaware of the mirror they hold: “Our apartment building doesn’t have central air, so the upstairs neighbors’ fights are worse when it’s hot, like tonight” (42). Readers meet both couples as they stagnate in their marriages; characters and readers alike become stuck in scenes difficult to witness, much like with Trigger’s misadventures in “Eureka, California” (75). Trigger is clueless, his antics both silly and sad, not to mention illegal and dangerous. Yet, however darkly comic, even this off-beat story comes back to Cromley’s core concerns about family, loss, and belonging.

The comedic vein continues with “3 Out of 5 Stars,” wherein the narrator fixates on a vacuum as a symbol for love’s failures. Readers who have comparison-shopped (in life and love) will appreciate the irony of the story’s final lines: “Don’t kid yourself. It’s only a vacuum” (99). Perhaps this story is the most cheekily, most self-consciously domestic of them all, but readers are soon sobered by the disappearance of Latrisca Williams in “Those Who Trespass” (114), or the death of Monty’s mother in “Homefront” (131). The final story, “The Physics of Floating,” brings readers back to Jack, back to where grieving families try again to connect as an entity, to “not…go too far” or “not today, at least” (157). The last tense, suspended image of Jack’s family not only mesmerizes but endures well beyond the initial reading.

In the end, these stories succeed primarily because they are both accessible and compelling, both down-to-earth and intellectually engaging. Cromley combines honest but moving prose, complex but clear metaphors, and concise but vivid depictions into one cohesive portrait of modern domesticity using a variety of voices and styles. Moreover, Cromley’s brand of literary domesticity is distinctly egalitarian—his main characters are all males, but they do not fail to consider the women and children who surround them without appropriate consequences. Perhaps “Homefront” offers the most poignant example of this “considerate” male perspective—when the narrator’s mother passes away, he thinks he just wants to be alone, but ultimately finds clarity in his grief:

He forced himself to catch his breath, to be still. The line was so clear it made the distance between them seem like nothing. He could sense her body heat, her pulse, through the phone.

“I need you,” he said. “I need you with me.” (143)

Here, in this stillness, Cromley elucidates yet another poignant, symbolic moment of human sorrow—the way it can divide, and reunite, its sufferers.

5/5 stars

What We Build Upon the Ruins and Other Stories
by Giano Cromley
Tortoise Books
November 14th, 2012
162 pages