Minneapolis, MN: Gray Wolf Press, 2011. 288 pages. $16.00.
It may seem strange for a writer to release a volume of collected stories after having published only two previous collections, but each of the stories included in Melanie Rae Thon’s In This Light: New and Selected Stories is so meticulously crafted that it’s easy to see how she could take over two decades to produce the kind of work we find here.
In interviews, Thon has suggested that she sometimes writes fifty to a hundred pages of exposition in order to understand a single character. That level of dedication is evident in the stories chosen for In This Light. Thon’s two previous collections—Girls in Grass (1991) and First, Body (1997)—show that she is unafraid of taking on a wide range of characters, often from the first person point of view. In the story “Punishment” from Girls in Grass, the narrator is a ninety-year-old woman recounting the hanging of a black female slave named Lize who cared for her baby brother after their mother passed away. Thon delivers the honest and anguished voice of the suffering and remorseful old woman, as well as the voice of Lize: “The man come to the shack. He say, my boy’s hungry. He pulls my dress apart at the neck, looks at my breasts like I’m some cow. He say, looks like you got plenty to spare.”
In selected works of stories, a writer’s growth from one collection to the next is often evident. Thon’s is no different. We find her digging deeper from one collection to the next, and the stories themselves seem to flow from a freer, more natural place, especially in long paragraphs, where the action moves swiftly and the language effortlessly unfurls.
In the title story of her second collection, First, Body, Thon details the beginning of an extended sex scene between a Vietnam vet and a newly recovering alcoholic by writing, “She’s unbuttoning his shirt, unzipping his pants, peeling him open.” Thon uses the undressing to enter his body, his thoughts and memories, and we follow the vet from his lover’s body to the swamps of Vietnam.
The ingenuity of language, the care invested in each sentence, separates Thon from other writers of her generation. Like Annie Proulx and Denis Johnson, she strikes an elegant balance between a lack of extraneous exposition and an acute awareness of place in its power to shape action and voice. Most of the settings of the stories in In This Light are uncommon: morgues, trailer parks, a Chippewa-Cree Indian reservation in Montana. The title of her collection is apt: her light shines on those living there—her voice breathing, speaking, living and dying for us to see. In one of the three new stories collected here, “Confession for Raymond Good Bird,” a barely trained first responder, better served putting out forest fires than tending to emergency calls on the reservation where he lives, says of himself and his people: “We’ve been wandering half our lives, dazed and unemployed for a century. When the smoke signals rise, when the fire is somewhere else, we give thanks for strange mercies.”
It is difficult to fault a writer for being intensely honest in both voice and description, but, like all writers, what stories their characters live is selective. If there is something to criticize in Thon’s work, it is a lack of what Italo Calvino aptly called “lightness.” Thon explores pain, addiction, and death with careful consideration. Her stories do not imitate, or seek easy endings. Her characters are not cruel, and we believe that they live day to day without hope or despair. When they are urged to remember, to tell their story, they draw on the guilt and remorse that has been held inside them. In the end, their stories read like an unburdening of the soul, meant for us to hear now, and, perhaps, never again.