‘I couldn’t decide whether I done good or bad'

William Luvaas, Ashes Rain Down: A Story Cycle

Spuyten Duyvil, 288pp, £9.95, ISBN 9781881471172

reviewed by Andre van Loon

Imagine a world in which ashes rain down from the sky. A world in which there are heat waves of such intensity that roads liquefy and armies are mobilised to protect their countries’ right to drinking water. In which there is wind of such ferocity that lizards are sucked clean off trees, never to be seen again. In which there are plagues of flies, ‘not just common house flies but carrion flies, fat-bodied, metallic bluebottles and viridescent greenbottles, typically associated with death.’ In which the ordinary and domesticated have become extraordinary and unmanageable. Such extremes of imagination pervade Ashes Rain Down and they are challenging. They demand more than a simple suspension of disbelief; they call for an active belief in the apocalypse, the real thing, the end of days.

These demands are made by William Luvaas, an American author and former creative writing teacher at San Diego State University, the University of California, Riverside and The Writer’s Voice in New York. Luvaas is the author of two novels, The Seductions of Natalie Bach (Foreverland, 1986) and Going Under (Putnam, 1994), as well as a short story collection, A Working Man’s Apocrypha (Oklahoma University Press, 2007). The first of these works is a coming-of-age novel; the latter two are closer to Ashes Rain Down in their focus on ordinary people in extraordinary situations. His latest offering develops this tendency to an extreme, depicting ordinary people in the most extraordinary situation possible: a world at its end.

The short story form, as handled by Luvaas, is very well suited to the extreme. The brevity of each of his stories allows for a concentration of effect, and allows the author to show a few resonant glimpses of the grotesque, the surreal and the horrible without developing too far towards the genre of horror fiction. That is not to say the stories don’t shock - ‘Ashes Rain Down’, the opening story of the cycle, starts with a vision of

embers sucked upward on furious thermals that rise off burning cities and oil wells, an indiscriminate crematorium, cooling to ash and falling earthward thousands of miles away. Reaching out a hand, you collect upon it either remnants of trees or of torched homes, vineyards, and human flesh ... histories reside in this ash – the palimpsest of a distant purposefulness.

Lawrence, the story’s narrator, goes on to accompany a pair of women to one of their mother’s house. There, they meet the woman’s brother, ‘a snake-thin, lean-hearted fellow with long arms and hatchet sharp nose ... mouth a mere hole.’ Things quickly unravel. We are not in a world of typical sentiments: the mother, rather than a sentimentally represented matriarch, is almost too disgusting to describe.

‘Family Life’, the closing story, focuses on a scrounging father and son, drifters who exploit and steal from others. As with the opening story, it is the narrating voice – the son in this case – that grabs the reader’s attention:

‘Oncet this big ol’ logger dude up to Idaho caught my pops siphoning gas and whupped the piss outn him, so I run back to the van and got the baseball bat – my mom and Krista hiding all sobby and scared inside – and come back and whumped that dude hard in the pit of his back, lain him out good too ... afterwards I couldn’t decide whether I done good or bad. Still, it’s him or my pops, and like my dad says, blood runs thicker than road tar.’

The family’s aggression, and their violent adherence to the bonds of blood, are typical of the cycle.

In one of the most distinctive stories, ‘Tommy’s New Brain’, a young boy builds a machine of discarded laptop elements that becomes an object of fascination and terror for the wider community. The boy believes that with it he can speak with the dead. It attracts religious fanatics from the local community, who intend to destroy what they see as an affront to God. The other stories in the cycle deal with people who think they live with ghosts, who have retreated to the desert to escape other people, who suffer from terrible diseases or who simply try to survive in a world of violence and wonder. Throughout the collection, Luvaas takes extreme, horror-fiction plot elements and uses them as a means of laying bare the American psyche.

The story cycle essentially revolves around the idea of freedom. Personal choice, sexual fulfilment and the hope of an independent life are the most cherished values in its world. The most dangerous people are those who betray you, lie to you, or manipulate you, and the scariest characters are not the grotesques, of whom there are quite a number, but rather the unreliable drunks, the cheating lovers, religious fanatics and the local police. This is a deeply American way of thinking about things - we are firmly in a world of paranoia and of distrust in authority. A world in which ordinary people are most likely to be good, but only as long as they are left alone. The apocalyptic events in the stories allow the author to depict the ramifications of these social assumptions at an accelerated rate.

The stories of Ashes Rain Down are not experimental. They have clear beginnings, middles and endings; the latter can be counted on to resolve in a satisfying and traditional way. There is, though, an interesting conflict between the libertarian underpinning of the characters within the stories – in which people crave independence and remain deeply distrustful of others – and the way the story’s structure throws people together. The blind, stubborn desire for freedom is quickly undermined by the necessities of circumstance.

The adherence to clear structures and the intelligible way in which the stories are narrated indicate each narrator’s fundamental desire for an audience – for an other. Even the most proudly independent people reach out to others, and enjoy some sense of community, however minimally. Luvaas’ stories suggest that society would be less threatening, less unpredictable, if citizens banded together, and he suggests this by depicting libertarian characters trying to deal with the end of the world while retaining their value systems. Beneath the grotesques, and the gestures towards genre horror, Luvaas has created a deeply thoughtful cycle of stories.
Andre van Loon is a freelance literary critic, specialising in new British and American novels and studies of Russian 19th- century literature.