Claire Davis’ theme in her new collection of short stories is as personal as it gets: life on the verge of failure, heartbreak as a stepping-stone toward inevitable change, and the spectacle of it all underneath the big sky of the Pacific Northwest. In the 10 compassionate stories that make up Labors of the Heart, characters pensively mine their routine lives, probing for change, direction, or, at the very least, some kind of understanding as their relationships—mostly marriages—and their lives hover at the brink of collapse.
In the title story, Pinky, a 5-foot-8-inch, 482-pound man, falls quietly in love with Rose, a rail-thin, thrice-divorced and embittered woman who has moved into the house kitty-corner from his own. Driven to celibacy by cynicism, Rose is “tapped out when it comes to men” and believes Pinky when he tells her he’s “safe,” interested only in neighborly friendship. When the two begin taking weekly grocery shopping trips together, Pinky finds himself trading his Ho Hos for the vegetables and whole grains Rose puts into her cart. And when their neighborly chats take a startling turn toward confessional and sometimes blunt exchanges, Pinky begins to realize that he has never sought anything other than food. Sharing a melon in the park near the grocery store, Rose recounts the tales of her three philandering ex-husbands while Pinky silently wishes he were capable of the activities “normal, everyday people perform in everyday courtship.” At a pause, he maintains again that he is safe, that he is “not like those men.” The statement is not that of a new lover reassuring a hesitant girlfriend, it is one of a fat man recalling an indisputable condition of his neutered existence. And Rose begins to challenge it: “‘Why?’ she asks. ‘Because you’re fat?’ And it’s just a statement. ‘Because you think other women wouldn’t find you attractive?’”
In “Adultery,” a middle-aged man struggles with the knowledge that his mother is cheating on her new husband by sleeping with her ex-husband, the middle-aged man’s father. “Mouse Rampant” presents a husband fearful of and desperate to understand his wife’s strange new hobby in the aftermath of their daughter’s estrangement. The collection closes with “The Same Sky,” the story of a young Midwestern bride overwhelmed by her new husband’s expectations and the foreign life of the American West. When she hits a horse at night while driving on a deserted road in Montana’s ranch country, the young bride walks the road in search of help while the injured horse, bleeding at its eye, plods on behind her.
The intensely reflective stories in Labors of the Heart consistently present characters at their most confused and vulnerable. In “Taps,” a wife and mother of two takes weekly dancing lessons with her work buddies in an effort to get a break from and, ultimately, gain some perspective on her marriage and family. When after-lesson drinks don’t do the trick, the character wonders if a spontaneous tattoo at the combination tattoo parlor and Christian bookstore will—somehow—help her come to a decision about the indifferent husband and ill-tempered teenaged daughter waiting for her at home.
While Davis focuses on the most ordinary of life’s challenges—failed marriages, misbegotten romances and the children they produce—her prose challenges readers to mark the very moment of reflective illumination. When do we realize that life won’t ever be the same? At which point exactly do we locate the beginning of resolution? For Pinky, in “Labors of the Heart,” resolution begins not when he loses the weight and wins the girl, but—more realistically—when he finds himself panting for breath with Rose at his side, poised to the outside world in an illusion of romance:
“In another block they stop again so that Pinky can catch his breath. He pants in the quiet, shakes his head. He will lose weight—he will because he cannot go on as he always has, he understands this now—but he also knows he will always be big. Not small, or even trim, and he is struck by this. It has been with him so long, this ocean of flesh. Pinky feels he must tell Rose. Warn her. ‘I will always be fat,’ he says.”
In each of the stories, Davis’ lyrical prose breathes startled life into the everyday problems of everyday people. One fault of the collection as a whole, however, is the repetition of both structure and style. Thematically, Davis should be praised for ending her stories at the very moment of realization, but structurally, Davis ends almost every story with a long passage—often invoking a vast landscape—that attempts to place her characters within a larger context. Hence these stories, as the individual parts of a larger vision, become formulaic and predictable. First they present the problem, then they elucidate the problem, and finally they place the character at the brink of resolution—usually beneath a big sky.
While Labors of the Heart cannot be considered pitch-perfect in either its structure or its arrangement, the collection tenderly and acutely illuminates the longings and desperations of the wretchedly imperfect human heart.