Friday, April 27, 2012

ACORN'S CARD, a novella and two stories

Stephen Poleskie, Acorn’s Card. Ithaca, NY: Onager Editions, 2011. 116 pp. $12.00 Paper. ISBN 978-1-60047-558-0

The blurb on the back of Stephen Poleskie’s Acorn’s Card declares the collection, a novella and two short stories, “out of the ordinary tales of living in America.” Yet after reading Poleskie’s work, “out of the ordinary” seems less than apt. Rather, Poleskie presents the incredibly ordinary – a reclusive man struggling to accomplish the tasks associated with everyday life, a Polish immigrant working to support his family, a suburban couple suffering from the flu and innocuous household worries. With sharp images and frank, direct prose, Poleskie transforms this “ordinary” material into captivating stories that draw readers into the characters’ worlds and leave them there to contemplate their own lives long after the tales have come to a close.

Acorn’s Card, the novella for which the collection is named, hinges upon extraordinary circumstances – John Acorn, a young man who enlists in Vietnam and then goes AWOL after his helicopter crashes during training drills, emerges from his mother’s attic after thirty years of hiding. In a close third-person narration, the novella follows John’s return to a changed world and his struggle to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, the loss of his mother and perhaps most strikingly, the challenges and freedoms of living out of the attic and in the everyday world. The story begins with John warring against his fears as he contemplates taking his first steps out of his mother’s house in order to retrieve the mail from across the street. Poleskie describes the challenge in painstaking detail: “He had been studying the street from the security of the house for most of the day, considering if and when he could safely cross – a decision not yet fully resolved in his mind when he stepped out onto the porch at dusk, reconciled to his fate” (3). John’s trip to the mailbox consumes the first nine pages of the eighty-eight page novella, yet at no point does the narration grow tiresome. Rather, Poleskie’s careful combination of sentiment, imagery, and flashback makes this ordinary task of fetching the mail seem like a feat of great import: “Suddenly, with a scream bursting from his throat, he ran down the rest of the steps and bolted across the asphalt. Eager, ignorant, and rasping with desire, John reached the mailbox. He hung onto it as if it were about to go somewhere” (6). From his first errand to the mailbox, to his calculated trips to the grocery store, John’s attendance to everyday chores reveals his pain and alienation and ultimately, highlights him as a man grappling with life as much as death.

“A Loaf of Bread,” the next story in the collection, details the plight of Polish immigrant, Jan Lesnachevski, who came to America to escape persecution for his role in organizing the Solidarity shipyard strikes. As in Acorn’s Card, the story focuses on Jan’s life long after this major turning point has passed. Now in the New World, Jan works long nights as a plumber, watching his children become more Americanized as he and his wife lose touch with their Polish roots yet fall short of becoming “true Americans”: “And while they worked hard to improve their knowledge of their adopted country, its history and its culture, they were forever circling outside, making the rounds, jostled and shoved, polite novelties, in demand until Poland’s plight had faded from the headlines” (91). “A Loaf of Bread” follows Jan on his way to work one night, after he buys a loaf of pasty white bread for his family’s breakfast and then proceeds to get lost on the wrong side of town. The loaf of bread, mass-produced and tasteless, becomes the emblem of the real American dream – for Jan and his family, it is undesirable but better than their other options.

The final story in the collection, “Flyer Bag,” truly highlights Poleskie’s ability to bring characters to life by immersing them in ordinary details. This short tale is set in the manicured backyard of a couple’s suburban home. Suffering, albeit mildly, from a late spring flu, they are revealed as quintessentially middle-class Americans, sitting “on a bench in their garden enjoying the sun with a resigned calmness – the way older people often do” and fretting over trivialities – their housecats, germs on shopping carts, and a plastic bag carried off by the wind. But once again, this story of the mundane is anything but dull, as Poleskie brings the scene to life with frank insights into the characters’ minds – “Realizing that their afternoon was already almost gone, wasted John supposed, they stood there breathlessly waiting for the white plastic bag to descend by itself” (113). Ultimately, the story becomes a commentary on middle-class, modern American life, where responsible citizens function as stewards of their own plot of land, chasing “the dozens of other bags, foam containers, pizza boxes, and soda cans” out of their front yards (112), but at the same time are immersed in privilege, revealed through their concerns with grocery store germs and a single, plastic bag caught up by a breeze.

Delving deeply into the lives of each of his characters, Poleskie presents three fast reads that satisfy on the page as much as they do hours later when the strikingly real images return to the mind to reveal their depth of meaning. Through these tales of the ordinary, Acorn’s Card reminds us that truly good fiction resides in the craft, not in extraordinary feats of plot.

~from Editions Bibliotekos, Spring 2012

- Jill M. Neziri, Fordham University.  
Jill M. Neziri, Ph.D. is a teaching fellow at Fordham University. She has published book reviews with Jacket. She is co-editor of the anthology, From the Heart of Brooklyn, and her poems appear there as well as in several literary magazines.
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