I received The Absent Traveler Randall DeVallance for review from Atticus Books.
About the Book:
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.)
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.
What short stories or short story collections have earned a place on your favorites list?