Eric Shade: Eyesores

University of Georgia Press
Eric Shade
University of Georgia Press

Though they live in a place called Windfall, Pennsylvania, luck is a stranger to the hardscrabble people of Eric Shade's debut collection, Eyesores. Born into broken homes and dead-end work, they're reminiscent of the cast of The Deer Hunter. Getting drafted into a war might actually seem like a boon to these folks; at least it would buy them a ticket out of town.

Chances are, though, that life the way these folks live it will finish them off sooner rather than later. Shade's narrators live in a world that's ruled by aggression, strength, and the ability to use these feelings in completing hard manual work with chain saws and worse. They wash down their bitterness at nights with pints of Yuengling lager and hours of television. Weekends they head off into the woods to fire buckshot at the deer population of western Pennsylvania.

It would be easy for this material to feel overly familiar, but Shade demonstrates a sure touch. His stories often begin with explosive situations, then work backward to provide the crucial context. In "Blood," for instance, a young man's uncle plans to shoot one of two louts he believes is sleeping with his wife. At first the reader sides with the maligned husband, only to learn through flashbacks that he deserves much worse than marital malaise.

Like the hero of "Blood," who ultimately must choose between family and doing what's right, history weighs heavily on Shade's narrators. "I have lived in Windfall all my life," says the protagonist of the title story, who takes a job demolishing a decrepit local drive-in. "[T]here are seventeen like me, with my last name, buried in a cemetery that overlooks the Muleshoe Bridge." Even as teenagers, Shade's characters sense their ultimate destination is the grave, and so they give a big bear hug to self-destruction. They load up on booze and cruise the two-lane highways in big old American cars, daring deer to enter the swath of their headlights. They bring their Easton bats to football games looking for fights.

Almost every American male who survives his teenage years will recall moments like these, that giddy pleasure, akin to a gambling high, of spending profligately with a currency--in this case, youth--that's been given for free. Shade is at his best when writing about young men who are beginning to come down off this high. "Superfly" and "The Last Night of the County Fair" both involve a group of teenage boys on the prowl. Yet these characters are no nighttime marauders, but fearful virgins, who dream of fast women only to seize up when they actually encounter one. Romance isn't in the cards for this crew. As one character puts it in another story, "The heart doesn't look like a Valentine. The heart is an ugly blood pouch. It doesn't have the symmetry you see in drawings of it."

A reader is apt to feel protective toward Shade's disillusioned young men. We don't want them to grow up too fast; we don't want them to feel stuck in Windfall forever. For their part, most of them have already accepted both.

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