Golden Braid: A book review of Hairway to Heaven Stories, a collection of short stories by Patty Somlo
Many of the short stories in Patty Somlo’s Hairway to Heaven were previously published elsewhere. While each story can stand alone, reading them all together in a single volume is an enormous advantage. One of the major accomplishments of Hairway to Heaven is its interconnections and associations, its themes and variations, which gradually resolve themselves – effortlessly, beautifully – into a novelistic whole. Hairway to Heaven is a very good book indeed.
Hairway to Heaven is set in and around Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard (MLK) in Portland, Oregon. Union Avenue, an arterial highway that ran through the city, became MLK only in 1990, in the teeth of much racially motivated opposition. Zoning restrictions and city planning had effectively marginalized and impoverished the area for decades, and in the late 1980s crime rates were high. However, its rich multi-ethnic history includes Native Americans, Germans and Scandinavians, and African Americans. In the 1990s the area began to be regenerated, leading to problems of gentrification and the exclusion of the very populations it was intended to benefit.
Readers are able to glean much of this history from Hairway to Heaven itself, in asides and observations within individual narratives, as characters encounter the infrastructure of daily life in and around MLK, travelling between work and home, exterior and interior, public and private. The streets and the businesses, the houses and the renovated loft spaces – the ubiquitous Portland rain itself – form the world of Hairway to Heaven, evoked casually, naturally and with delightful economy, even when its violence is at odds with individual and community aspirations, as in The Spell:
[Elidio] sat on the porch of the house he would one day build and breathed in the sweet damp air. He ignored the endless sirens wailing up and down MLK Boulevard and the pop-pop-pop-pop of gunfire outside. He failed to notice the thrum of the bass thumping from passing cars.
Major characters in one story often appear as minor characters in another. This simple device serves as the literary equivalent of meeting a friend on the street: a frisson of recognition, a smile of surprise, a moment of community. Every mention of MLK Boulevard has a similar effect, placing us there and adding detail to our mental maps of the neighbourhood. By the end of the book, MLK is as emblematic and evocative as, say, Lake Wobegon or Yoknapatawpha County.
Hairway to Heaven never for one moment suggests that Patty Somlo is making decisions about who to write about next, or that she is deliberately cultivating variety. In lesser hands, the movement from a young African American woman to an Egyptian immigrant to a gay white man to a former baseball star to a homeless Native American would call attention to itself as something self-consciously ‘worthy’ and ‘concerned’, even condescending, but which would nevertheless perpetuate the controlling, categorizing, ethnographic gaze of (usually white, male, heteronormative) outsider elites.
Ms Somlo writes as if this is her community, as perhaps it is; as if these people are her neighbours, as perhaps they are. Everyone has his or her dignity, everyone has his or her unique history. Their lives overlap in a multitude of ways, often simply as a result of geography. They live and work and die within a few blocks of one another; their world is small but it is a universe of experience and meaning. Tragedy and heroism and suffering and goodness are enfolded in the normal, the ordinary, the everyday. We are privileged to spend time with such people.
These days, short stories often conform to some kind of template. Many of them read like overly prescriptive models issued by tutors of creative writing – first-person, present-tense tales focused on language and microscopic fragments of experience, lifeless and instantly forgettable. Others divide themselves neatly into three acts, often with an ironizing epilogue meant to upset our readerly assumptions. Hairway to Heaven follows its own path, telling stories that are spare but never slight, conveying sentiment untouched by sentimentality. They have an unobtrusive structure that progresses the narrative. Things happen and we learn the significance borne by people who have seen a lot in their lives.
In the Afternoon Mail is the first of a minority of stories to use first-person narration:
What I can’t bear to tell my mother is that America has worn me down. I have made mistakes, yes. Not understanding the freedom I was given here has certainly exacted a price. My mother cannot understand my world, since her life has always gone along a pre-planned path. She would not believe all the choices and opportunities available to a person in America and how easily one can take the wrong steps.
This admission contains some principal themes of the collection, among them belonging and loss, the pull of place and past, the importance of people telling (often hidden, painful) stories, and a sense of treading water so as not to drown. In the Afternoon Mail also has one of many little epiphanies:
I stared at the tall buildings downtown on the river’s other side. The city where I’d lived for going on – was it twenty-five years now? I had hardly seen it before. The river was beautiful, as were the boats, the sunlight and people pedaling across the bridge on bikes.
Loss takes various forms. In Angelina, a story told from multiple viewpoints, an abandoned baby is found in a bus shelter:
Jonathan kept telling himself to leave, that the last thing in the world he wanted was to get involved. But these were his neighbors, and he needed to find out how the story would end after all.
The endings to some of these stories occasionally snatch a sacred moment from the jaws of disappointment, defeat or death. The Spell, Pickets and Bein’ Good – a story of a young girl with new shoes (they light up!) retrieved from the donation pile at the local family shelter – have particularly affecting conclusions.
Emergency Room is possibly the best in the collection. While people in need of urgent medical attention wait patiently in the local hospital, they gradually coalesce, sharing each other’s stories and revealing the eternal truths of the poor and marginalized:
She’d woken up that morning with the curse of women everywhere – a bladder infection. She’d had one before and knew all she needed was a course of antibiotics. Without insurance, the only way to get them was to sit here and wait for someone to see her.
As the wait extends to many hours, throughout the night and into the next day, an old man named William Shine shakes his head, ‘letting a weak, sad grin take over his mouth’:
‘Oh, you know, they always come out,’ he said. ‘Eventually. They just want you to wait and make you understand.’
‘Understand what?’ I asked …
‘They need us to know that we nuthin’. Just nuthin’. That’s what this country all about … They say, you mess up, you deal with it.’
There follows a surreal incursion into the menacingly deserted corridors of the hospital, the patients banding together to take matters into their own hands. The doors they push open become metaphors of empowerment and community.
Cowboy is a sensual exploration of a passionate relationship shared by people of very different backgrounds:
Catherine made love to Nganga that night as if he were a beautiful black jaguar she’d decided to ride. She wrapped her thighs around him, letting his heat warm her. From Nganga, Catherine pulled power and energy into her calves and up to her thighs. She rode Nganga, taking his name like a hot lozenge on her tongue and, as the name melted to liquid in her mouth, she swallowed. She let the force of that dark river swirl through her and then pulled out its thick wet sound.
This erotic apotheosis of connectivity appropriately concludes Hairway to Heaven, the significance of whose title is woven into the imagery of this oustanding achievement.
Cherry Castle Publishing | ISBN 9780692964385 (pbk)