Reviewed by Sarah Cypher
The stories in Tracy Daugherty's collection, One Day the Wind Changed, are anxious and existentially lonely pieces. Their characters are male, many with asthma, and most living in West Texas or Oklahoma. They are "flummoxed by the world" and wrestle with the gap between body and mind, self and society, victim and violence.
Each could support an argument that the midcentury existential doubts about human primacy and meaning are still unresolved -- and have only been deepened by terrorism and destructive technology. "Purgatory, Nevada" criticizes the arrogance and violence of our civilization. "Magnitude," "Shanty Irish" and "The Inhalatorium" juxtapose astronomy with the characters' restricted breathing to create a leitmotif of mind vs. body that repeats throughout the collection. In one story, a would-be saint deflowers a scholar, and in another, a heavenly sailor literally drowns in the desert. God, when he appears in these men's thoughts, is a tumbleweed, a scotch-drinker and a cosmic planner with a shoddy road crew: mundane terms devoid of mystery. One character wonders in "Bern" if the purpose of all "human activity -- violence, remembrance -- was to plumb human activity."
In other words, Daugherty's human race is earthbound and self-destructive. His writing and vision of our spiritual poverty is impressive, yet despite its depth, we notice two important absences. First, where are the women? In any art form, selection of elements is important. The stories' female characters fall into generic categories: the maiden, the matron, the man-eater, the crone. One exception is the English teacher-mother in "The Republic of Texas," but by comparing her to Dante's Beatrice, Daugherty elevates her toward the divine. Another is the collection's only female narrator in "Observations of Bumblebee Activity During the Solar Eclipse, June 30, 1954," but she is cloaked in science -- the story is an adaptation of an actual scientific paper written by Astrid Loken.
Second, where are the characters who experience joy? The characters with children, trusting partnerships and real friendships? The collection offers many existential premises: "Finally, people were unknowable, in public and in private." "Shallowness seemed to be everyone's lot." It suggests that when faced with violence (9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing), we can't and shouldn't outrun despair. But there seems to be room between pleasure-seeking denial and carrying on with one's life, and with all the relationships that are naturally a part of it.
We are curious how a writer with Tracy Daugherty's sensitivity might work with a stagnant branch of philosophy if he tested its ideas on characters who can't indulge their anomie. Yet if the stories' objective is merely to demonstrate loneliness, they succeed beautifully, thoughtfully and evocatively.
Daugherty teaches at Oregon State University. His previous book, Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme, won an Oregon Book Award.
Books mentioned in this post