IT'S HARDLY NEWS that the current vogue for memoir is encroaching upon literary fiction, but the trend is dismaying nonetheless. To wit: Mark Slouka's Lost Lake, a lyrical collection of a dozen pieces, several of which I'm hesitant to call stories. Slouka's preferred mode is to dredge up poignant memories of childhood from the safe haven of the present, a strategy which at its worst leads to clunky self-reflective sentiments such as "I was quick to anger, quick to tears, an utter mystery to myself."
Slouka's exposition of the family history, which involves not only his Czech-immigrant parents but the other immigrant families who formed a community around a lake in upstate New York, occasionally borders on strict genealogy. "In our home, the past was always present," explains the narrator of "Jumping Johnny." The trouble is, by paying such reverent homage to that omnipresent past, Slouka undermines the appeal of this collection as a work of fiction. The vivid catalogue of lake imagery and fishing lore lends some immediacy to the tales, though this can seem like regurgitated Hemingway when attached to the young-boy-learns-about-life-and-becomes-a-man mood of the book.
There are, however, moments worth noting in this memory-afflicted collection. These often occur when Slouka takes the focus off his first-person ruminations and tells someone else's story. In "The Woodcarver's Tale," which won a National Magazine Award in Fiction after its 1995 publication in Harper's, Slouka eloquently imagines the internal world of the lonely and legendary Machar who smuggled Czech families out of the path of the Nazis during World War II. As in Art Spiegelman's Maus, the author and his father's stories play a delicate contrapuntal line beneath the main theme. "The Lotus Eaters" penetrates the family dynamics of the neighboring Finnsmiths, whose burdens lie firmly in the present rather than in the past. "Equinox" attempts to balance the tragedy struck and the tragedy averted between the Sipkas and the Mazzolas, two other families at the lake. And there are a lovely series of "sketches" that showcase Slouka's economical descriptions and evocations of place.
In "The Exile," the main character wishes that "the past, finally and forever, would fall away." Let's wish the same for the obviously talented Mark Slouka. In returning to the Lost Lake of his childhood he has, we hope, exorcised the demons of history that have tormented him, and can now get on with the subtler business of writing fiction.