David Long and the art of writing

David Long

I discovered David Long in the pages of a tattered copy of GQ carelessly tossed among week-old newspapers in a laundromat in Maine. The story was called Eggarine and it was a joy and revelation from beginning to end.

It was the summer of 1994 and I’d moved to an island in Maine to write a book of short stories. I had willingly given up reading fiction so I wouldn’t be caught in the wake and seduction of other writer’s words, turns of phrases, and dialogue.

But since my island was 13 miles from the laundromat, I was a prisoner of time and opportunity.  So, I read Long’s story with the sound track of whirling dryers and the rhythmic beat of washers.

There are some stories that take you outside of yourself into an unfamiliar world.  And others that deftly illuminate your own world. Great stories, do both.

Eggarine is a story of a young man whose has both the blessing and pain of being born to older parents.  Years after his father’s death and with his mother’s growing infirmity occupying his mind, he begins to untangle the submerged and complicated feelings about his father.

If there is a emotional vein that permeates Long’s work, it is estrangement in all it’s various colorings.  In Eggarine, the estrangement isn’t a singular dramatic event but the natural evolution of a young man growing up and leaving home.

What resonated with me were the parallels with my own life.  Like my own family, the characters lived in a small town in Massachusetts.  And like me, the main character was born when his father was 40 and his mother in her late thirties.  The mother called him a “miracle baby” because he was born so late in her life.  I was a miracle baby in that I survived when my twin sister did not.

“Sometimes I caught her staring at me as if I were miraculous, and therefore exempt from judgment.”

But it’s the description of the father that so closely mirrors my own: “Aside from reading, my father had no pastimes — cared nothing for televised sports, joined no group he didn’t absolutely have to.  What he did, mainly, was keep the property up.”

My father’s passion was reading and the gentle caretaking of the lawn and flower garden.

Like the main character’s father, my father was forced to retire early after over 30 of years at one firm —  “without ceremony, without complaint.”

Long continues, “I’d always thought of him as an envoy from a time beyond reach, but oddly, he seemed no older at sixty than I’d ever remembered him.  No weaker, no less cheerful — no more profligate with advice, either.”  My father was weakened by heart problems but, he too, was no more profligate with advice as he grew older.

I won’t give up the ending which is surprising in its poignancy.  But, like the best of John Updike, the story is about the slow revelation of insight through memory and observation.

It’s also about what remains. The aftermath of his father’s death is also a story of a mother’s life endured.  The main character has both the guilt and the freedom of living too far to be an anchor in his mother’s new life until she becomes ill.

What Long does so well is to combine the soul of a poet with the art of keen insight into everyday people. His characters aren’t necessarily heroic or charismatic — but they unfailingly human.

Here is the beginning of Eggarine.

“My father walked with a cane all his life. He had been born with a withered leg, and it had grown into a bony shank, the muscles like long whittlings of white wood.  He wasted no effort trying to hide it.”

The great joy of being a writer is the alchemy.  It doesn’t matter how Long came to give this father a withered leg.  Stories are inventions and their moving parts a mystery.  My father didn’t have a gimpy leg or visible wound.  He had the wound of living as a semi-orphan and the horror of being a medic in the Pacific in World War II.

The writer’s art is often to create a wound or a tic or a passion that reflects what one has observed.  The mind serves up a kind of emotional breeze and you bask in it and you drop words into it and see how far it moves.

David Long’s work is moving because for all its poetry and sublime language, it’s real.  It comes from someone who observes the world with a desire to understand how the decisions we make affect us and how we live with the consequences.

You can find Eggarine in David Long’s commendable short story collection, Blue Spruce or if you’re fortunate enough, in a small Laundromat with a few hours to spare.