Review of Same Place, Same Things, by Tim Gautreaux
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/5/06
Having recently read a short story collection called The Mountains Won’t Remember Us, by Robert Morgan, set in southern Appalachia, I was heartened after reading the first two of twelve stories in Same Place, Same Things, by Tim Gautreaux. While Morgan was the quintessential generic and bland writer (despite his regionalism)- not really horrible, but not really good, in the first two stories of this 1996 book I felt that Gautreaux was a writer like Morgan, but a bit juiced up. Those first two tales were also tales of the South, as all his tales are, and of losers in silly situations, but Gautreaux gave both tales some decent characterization, and the first tale ended quite well. Both stories, however, suffered from ills that would fatally damn the remaining ten tales in his book- they were far too long for the rather one dimensional tales they told, they relied far too heavily on mere physical descriptions of the settings they were in, and the dialogue spoken by the losers never captured those true moments of offhand poesy that the best fiction should, regardless of place or time. Short stories that go off on tangents simply to describe the smell of hyacinth, or the curve of a branch, without those things serving some ultimate purpose, are those where the writer is padding the tale with his own presumed creativity, trying to show off that he can be as poetic as Faulkner or Hemingway at their best (and often failing), without the tale being improved dramatically by such tangents. Yet, short stories are not novels, where such tangents can, and often should, bridge dramatic scenes. A short story should usually only contain that which best serves the ultimate purpose it has, without extraneous detail or description for its own sake. In short, brocading is a sin. Gautreaux brocades, yet his reader pays for that sin.
On the plus side, his writing is never as dull as Morgan’s, nor is it as stereotyped as Faulkner’s horrible short stories, even as it tightropes between originality and an off the rack feel that many Southern writers employ. That last sentence probably contains Gautreaux’s strength, since his tales are set in the Louisiana bayous, thus ripe for the over the top Southern Gothic feel of the horrid Flannery O’Connor vein. Gautreaux wisely refrains from such, as he is more at home with the low key world of a Eudora Welty (an infamous brocader, herself), yet his tales never quite rise to the solid, and sometimes brilliant, level of Robert Olen Butler’s Louisiana tales, instead becoming, ala Morgan, tales of yet more emotionally inert Southern losers who either take or pass on a last chance to succeed in life. Never do we get a character who does not end up in a place an astute reader cannot see coming several pages away. Gautreaux’s world is a very small one. This small purview and formulaic approach should not surprise, since Gautreaux is, what else?, a creative writing teacher at Southern Louisiana University.
The first, and titular, story, is the best in the book, by far, and despite some flaws- mainly its length, and its easily parodied title being a unwitting reflection of the book’s contents. It follows an itinerant water pump repairman who finds a dead farmer, then is sexually pursued by his beautiful young widow, who turns out to be the killer, who assaults him by tale’s end. The next tale, and only other one that even works in part, is Waiting For The Evening News, which is more or less a character study of a fifty year old drunken train engineer who flees the scene of an accident, that results in a huge toxic waste tragedy, thinking his drinking will be blamed, when really it was an accident that would have occurred sober or not. The tale ends almost in media res, and very disappointingly, with no resolution.
The rest of the tales are a dull hodgepodge, that could have easily have been penned by Robert Morgan and a hundred other Southern fictionists. Gautreaux’s bulk suffers from that common ill of mediocre writing- it is generic. For example, let’s look at some of the narrative arcs in the book. In Good For The Soul, a drunken priest drives to a sick call at night and suffers many indignities. In The Courtship Of Merlin LeBlanc, the tale opens with a good first paragraph, of a baby playing with shotgun shells because, ‘They [the shotgun shells] were waterproof and too big to choke on, so he figured they’d be safe’, then tanks into a sentimental tale of fatherhood being a blessing, when Merlin, a strawberry farmer, must raise his daughter’s child after she suddenly dies. He’s such a fool that he mistakes foot oil liniment for cologne, and sings Your Cheatin’ Heart as a lullaby, all- remarkably- without a chuckle arising. In Navigators of Thought, unemployed academics become tugboat pilots, but this interesting premise is the best thing in this dull tale. In Resistance, an elderly widower likes a young shy neighbor girl living with terrible parents, so helps her with a science project, despite the father’s rages. In The Bug Man, a good natured exterminator keeps entangling himself in his customers’ lives, and wonders if this is a wise thing to do. In Deputy Sid’s Gift, a nursing home worker learns that bigotry and spite are not good things. In License To Steal, an alcoholic blue collar loser is abandoned by his faithless wife, and rebuked by his nasty son, who sides with his mother:
Said she was tired of living in Louisiana with somebody didn’t bring home no money. Said she wanted to move to the United States.
This could be a funny observation were it not so trite, especially from a Cajun loser who is no more clued in to life than his father, and works at a sausage plant.
One can see, just from these capsules, how bland and delimited the purview Gautreaux explores is. Like Robert Morgan, Tim Gautreaux simply does not have much to say about life, the cosmos, ethics, living, dying, etc. The big questions elude him, and the small things which fascinate him go unillumined. Yes, he may describe some scenery well, and capture some inflections of dialect, and local customs. So? That makes for a good work of sociology, not fiction. None of the characters is particularly deep, nor interesting, but a skilled writer can make what occurs around them interesting, by his approach to their lives, and what he has happen to them. In these tales, Gautreaux sets about the simple task of wanting to record a time and place, not entertain and enlighten. And while that is his right, certainly, one has to wonder why his publisher, Picador Books, felt that there was any way they could make any money with such paint by numbers tales. Yes, the man has won some major short story awards, and appeared in Harper’s and The New Yorker, but so have many other writers. There really is nothing in this book that sets Gautreaux apart from any of them- not the dozens of other published Southern writers, nor the thousands of unpublished ones, south of the Mason-Dixon line or in any of the other cardinal directions from it.
A better title would have been Same Tales, Same Yawns. But truth is for art, not advertising, right?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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