Book Review by Sam Slaughter
by Jen Knox
Rain Mountain Press, 2015
185 pages, $15.00
If you have never lived in Ohio, after reading Jen Knox’s new collection After The Gazebo, you won’t have to. In these stories, Knox shows us every facet of Ohioan life in a tender, clear way.
Almost every one of Knox’s stories looks at aspects of Midwestern life—living, dying, gaining and losing family. Many of these stories hinge on major life moments, like in the title story, which describes a fateful wedding day. “The family was rich, so incredibly rich, but it didn’t matter. The money did not reconcile the odd chain of events, that slight hit that sent their small car spinning into the median strip.” You know what has happened to this couple on their wedding day long before this—or you can guess—but Knox does well to crystallize all the pain, the sorrow, the suffering into just a few sentences. She’s able to do this throughout her stories, showing us as clear as day the moments that irrevocably change her characters’ lives.
In many of the stories, Knox’s characters are older—they’re on the back-end of life, reflecting on what has come before and using their experiences as a filter for the world. In “The Suit,” Knox perfectly captures the mindset of a little old lady out to make the world a better place in her own way: “Miranda could get anyone to smile, and there was nowhere people needed to smile more than on public transportation in northwestern Ohio.” This is one of the only goals left in this woman’s life, the simple act of getting people to smile. What is harmless in her eyes could easily come off as annoying to other passengers and Knox shows this in a wonderful way: “he gave her that close-lipped smile. It was the kiss-of-death smile that implies he had fulfilled his nicety quota.” Knox’s characters act and react in human ways, yet at the same time through those simple actions and descriptions, Knox is able to carry out much more.
These stories are simple, but do not let that fool you. The stories are quiet but they pack an emotional punch that hides just below the surface. The landscape in “The Snowstorm” is a “wonderland [that] covers cars and bikes; it climbs stairs and devours porches.” The evil inherent in devouring plays out later in the story as the snow becomes less and less a pretty thing to look at.
These stories are real and they stay with you. Knox gives us a chance to look at life in Ohio and reminds us that, no matter where we’re from, we’re all still dealing with the same things day-in and day-out.
Sam Slaughter is a fiction writer based in Central Florida. He serves in various editorial capacities for Atticus Review, Entropy, and Black Heart Magazine. He’s had work published in Midwestern Gothic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Heavy Feather Review, among others. His debut chapbook, When You Cross That Line, was published in May 2015. He loves playing with puppies and drinking good bourbon.