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Thoughts on “The Absent Traveler” by Randall DeVallance

I received The Absent Traveler Randall DeVallance for review from Atticus Books.

About the Book:

The Absent Traveler by Randall DeVallance (cover)The Absent Traveler features one novella (the title work) and eight short stories. The novella tells the story of Charles Lime, a twenty-something stuck in a dead-end retail job in his hometown. Unwilling to move back into his old bedroom and unable to afford a real apartment, Charles has taken tenuous and unofficial lodgings in the home of a woman named Barbara; when we meet Charles, he is living in Barbara’s unfinished basement. Charles’s one pleasure is reading, and through books he escapes his reality–at times, a little too effectively.

The short stories introduce an array of characters, both named and nameless: a man whose girlfriend is leaving him, an immigration officer, an author who’s agreed to write a novelization of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and–my personal favorite–Nigel Moon, who is visited in the night by a mysterious haberdasher.

(I’ve included the whole cover, front and back, because I think it’s rather cleverly done and ties in with the title story well.)

My Thoughts:

I’m only just beginning to find short stories I enjoy, so when I was offered a chance to read and review The Absent Traveler, I accepted. I’m happy to say I was not disappointed. Though the novella and stories cover a wide range of stories and characters, beneath each is the feeling of something being slightly out of the ordinary: Charles’s mysterious relationship to his books, the connection amongst three people made by a top hat, a character who signs up for the shady-sounding Harmony Brigade after the Peace Corps turns him down. Each seemingly realistic story is laced with some hint of mystery that makes it unpredictable and intriguing.

The novella, entitled The Absent Traveler, takes up more than half of the book. The main character, Charles, is a very real, very pitiable young man, and I had a tough time not feeling sorry for him. His life is full of strained relationships: his boss at work, his “landlady,” his parents. His social life is nonexistent, as are his career prospects. He seeks refuge in books, even though he cannot afford to actually purchase them. It may sound like Charles is a bit of a stereotype, but I did not feel him to be one. He, and the story’s supporting characters, were distinct, interesting, and realistic.

I enjoyed all eight of the short stories, some, naturally, more than others. Instead of discussing each, I’ll share my favorite, which was entitled The Haberdasher. In it, Nigel Moon wakes up in the middle of the night to find a haberdasher in his bedroom, the man’s wares spread about the room. Nigel has no idea why the haberdasher is in his room, and the man will reveal only that getting Nigel fitted is of the utmost importance. The story continues, with Nigel trying various approaches to shed some light on the situation and the haberdasher dodging every one. I was fascinated by the mystery, absorbed in the situation, and delighted by the ridiculousness of it all.

DeVallance’s writing is easy to read, artful without being overkill, well suited to his stories. His tales are peppered with odd similes, which caught my attention with their creativity and aptness. For instance, as Charles locates Bulgaria on a map of Europe:

“It was a tiny, green nub sandwiched between yellow Romania to the north and purple Greece to the south, its eastern border nevertheless managing to nuzzle up against the Black Sea’s murky waters like a piglet carving out space at the trough among two massive hogs.” (p. 64)

Or a bit later, as he examines the back of his new book:

“In the top-right corner was a photo of C. Evans Fulbright [the author] staring moodily up at Charles, his face a mixture of aggression and wonder, as if he were gazing upon a unicorn he wanted to pummel.” (p. 75-76)

DeVallance’s interesting turns of phrases added to that subtle sense of oddness that pervades his stories.

As someone new to and somewhat skeptical of short stories, I was pleasantly surprised by Randall DeVallance’s new collection, The Absent Traveler. If you enjoy stories with a touch of the bizarre about them, stories with a deeper undercurrent beneath their seemingly ordinary exterior, I think you might enjoy The Absent Traveler, too.

If you’re interested, you can read an in-depth interview with DeVallance about The Absent Traveler (the novella) on the publisher’s website.

Your Turn!

What short stories or short story collections have earned a place on your favorites list?

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  • http://www.armchairarchives.blogspot.com Marisa

    This sounds like a title I should look into! I just finished reading a collection of Paul Bowles’ short stories for the first time and happily a discovered a new writer that I love! From feedback I’ve heard from others, they’re not for everyone, but he definitely has a keen sense of style and mood that I really appreciate. I think what you said about The Absent Traveler, “stories with a deeper undercurrent beneath their seemingly ordinary exterior”, could be applied to Bowles as well. For those who like to identify with characters, Bowles probably isn’t a good choice, but for me, the places become the characters, not the people who populate them.

    • Erin

      I love it when you happen upon an author by chance! I’ll have to look into Bowles’s stories. Maybe I’ll end up liking them, too, especially if he’s maybe a little similar to DeVallance. I do like identifying with characters, but if there’s something else to latch onto, that’s fine. I’m interested by what you said about the places becoming characters.

  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    Oh, this book definitely sounds like something I need to read! I like the unpredictability and the intrigue of it all, and I need to find out more about that haberdashery story! I also think that the subplot involving the man who escapes into his reading sounds very interesting. You have sold me on this book, so thanks!

    • Erin

      I loved the haberdasher! So random, but so well done. I wanted to hear more about him, but a longer story really wouldn’t have had the same mystery and intrigue. I hope you enjoy this collection!

  • http://senior-common-room.blogspot.com Annie

    I have to admit to rarely reading short stories but the one collection I would recommend to anyone is Juhmpa Lahiri’s ‘Interpreter of Maladies’. It is superb.

    • Erin

      I just finished Interpreter of Maladies, Annie, and I loved it! I should be getting my review up this coming week…just as soon as I write it :-)

  • http://www.buriedinprint.com BuriedInPrint

    That does sound intriguing; I like the sound of the novella’s bookishness!

    I really enjoy Carol Shields’ short stories — sometimes magical and sometimes funny and sometimes poignant; I also admire Margaret Atwood’s stories — sometimes wickedly clever and sometimes heartfully disturbing and always worth a second reading.

    • Erin

      Hm, I’ve never read Shields’s or Atwood’s short stories. I know I like Atwood, so I’ll have to give her a try. I’ll see if I can find something by Shields as well. Magical/funny/poignant sounds like a really nice mix.

  • http://www.booklineandsinker.com nat @book, line, and sinker

    i’m a huge fan of short stories and use them in my classroom all year long. my students enjoy them because we can get through them quickly and the characterization is usually good and plot development rapid. i tend to stick mostly with the classics but do have a few contemporary authors (amy tan, etc) in the mix to keep it fresh. enjoy the genre–it tends to be underrated.

    • Erin

      Oh, that’s a great idea! I wish my teachers had used more short stories. I didn’t realize Amy Tan wrote short stories, but then, I’m finding a lot of authors I didn’t know wrote short stories actually do write short stories :-)

  • http://niesaandanbolynread.wordpress.com Anbolyn

    Hi, I’m new to your blog ~ very much enjoy it!
    One of my favorite short story collections is Delicate, Edible Birds by Lauren Groff. Published a few years ago, the stories are unique and quirky and I loved all of them.

    • Erin

      Welcome, thanks for stopping by! I just read a really nice review of Delicate Edible Birds the other day. Two recommendations so close together means I’ll have to check it out!

  • http://nomadreader.blogspot.com nomadreader (Carrie)

    I’m not a huge fan of short stories, but I do adore Elizabeth Crane’s first two collections: You Must Be This Happy to Enter and When the Messenger is Hot. I also really enjoyed Lydia Millet’s latest collection (a Pulitzer finalist last year), Love in Infant Monkeys.

    • Erin

      I kind of love the titles of all of those collections. Now I’m intrigued to read them!

  • http://www.eclectic-eccentric.com Trisha

    I am very hit or miss with short stories too. Glad this one worked for you.