Life is a constant stream of transitions. Whether it is aging, growing closer, or growing apart, we’re always either coming or going. Jason Tinney sets his latest collection of stories right on these transitions with his book “Ripple Meets the Deep” (City Lit Press). The title alludes to the ideal spot for his characters to fish on Deep Creek Lake, right on the channel, “between ten and twenty-two feet deep.” Tinney has a knack for keeping his characters out on the lake, unsatisfied, trying desperately to prove that they can catch a fish.
The stories are set throughout the United States, mostly off rural exits from the highway. But Tinney finds ways to reference local culture wherever he can. The main characters don’t miss a chance to remind themselves that ruby-throated hummingbirds are the “only species of three hundred and forty in the world that travel to Maryland, migrating in the spring from Central America and Southern Mexico,” or to point out that we steam our crabs, not boil them.
“Ripple Meets the Deep” centers around a collection of 10 very short stories titled “Make Me a Pallet.” Between each standalone story in the book, Tinney’s “Make Me a Pallet” tales navigate the unrequited love themes and lyrical tempo that ultimately define the book as a whole. They follow a musician named Travis’ first-person account of life on the road, mostly as a resident of a La Quinta Inn and Suites off any random exit, USA. There isn’t any time spent on the musician as a performer on stage. In fact, when we first meet Travis, he has just been injured in a freak fiddle accident and is on his way to the motel for the night.
The choice to focus on a musician’s time between shows allows Tinney to focus on the musician as a stranger in a mundane world without any real responsibilities. Tinney, in a very subtle way, is using the “all the world’s a stage” theme, and has his characters appreciate the world around them with curiosity and the presence of mind to actively view it as a concert.
When we do see the musicians onstage, it is in somewhat tortured extra-musical moments, as in the fiddle injury, which occurs when the fiddle player’s “bow plow[s] into [Travis’] eye socket in the middle of a red hot rendition of Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’”
Even though we rarely see the musicians playing, the stories are suffused with music, which Tinney, who co-founded Baltimore-based bands Donegal X-Press and The Wayfarers, knows well (full disclosure: he has played and read at the bar Mick O’Shea’s, where I work). With parenthetical subtitles to each of the “Make Me a Pallet” stories—named after the song ‘Make Me a Pallet (On Your Floor),’ popularized by blues legend Mississippi John Hurt — he manages to slip in a soundtrack that carries the reader through the history of music. And, like song lyrics, they often lack a formal story structure but rely on timing and lyrical precision.
Tinney’s stories ultimately lean on the same main character, even if his or her name changes with each story. Maybe Evan is a happily married family man in ‘Derecho,’ but he has the same reservations and hang-ups as Andrew going through a quick fling in ‘The Mouth of Possibility,’ or Wayne battling uncertainty about his relationship with his father in the title story.
The nearly interchangeable characters in this very masculine book are beset and befuddled by longings for love and acceptance, whether it is from the women, parents, or children in their lives. They are lost and lack control of important things in their lives and, yet, they are all animated by their full awareness of this. This allows us to view each story as a collection of tales being told by Travis, the reoccurring harmonicist from the “Make Me a Pallet” series.
In ‘Make Me a Pallet (Gone Fishing),’ the last installment of the series, a young girl, Bridget, mistakes Travis’ harmonica box for a tackle box. It’s a great moment that shows the difficulty of labeling people by the trappings that surround and often literally trap them. Then she sees his flask and says that her father says in the old days only somebodies and drunks carried flasks. Without mentioning who is a somebody and who is a drunk, Ulysses S. Grant, Ernest Hemingway, and Hank Williams are all mentioned. She asks Travis, “So, are you a somebody or a drunk or both?”and cuts right to the heart of this collection—and the human condition—with a question so ripe, we hope that Tinney has already used it in a song.