It’s always strange to return to your hometown once you’ve left, especially if so many others you know stayed put. I grew up in Howard County, and it seems as though every time I return to my parents’ house for a weekend visit, I have yet another awkward encounter with someone I went to elementary school with. Over the summer, I went peach-picking with my mom and ended up in an uncomfortable conversation with a guy working at the farm who I had been in band with in school. Patrick Weed, the narrator of the story ‘The Substitute’ in Jen Michalski’s short-story collection “From Here,” has an all-too-similar encounter with an old high school classmate when he returns to his hometown to take care of his sick father; as he says, “I tried to avoid them like traffic cones on a driving test.” It’s the sort of witty, on-point observation that populates all of the short stories in “From Here,” which depict a huge range of characters and situations, all of them inspecting the ideas of dislocation, belonging, and the meaning of home from a different angle. While the perspectives vary, they’re all told through the lens of Michalski’s sharp eye for detail and beautiful prose.
It opens with the breathtaking ‘Orion,’ told in third-person plural, that’s less of a story than a beautifully depicted moment of two people seemingly so in sync and so comfortable with one another that their perspectives can be narrated together: “They felt their bodies brace against each other and the building rush of coming. They took turns staring at the moon over each other’s shoulder. They thought if they came while concentrating on the moon that they would be bestowed by ethereal powers. They realized they were really high. They came. They laughed because they were still mortal.” But after this euphoric opening, the collection gets more emotionally complicated, as Michalski’s characters lose their innocence, as in ‘The Safest Place,’ or struggle to cope with what’s already been lost, like in ‘Killing Rabbits,’ a story about a high schooler and her alcoholic dad.
As with any collection, the quality isn’t entirely consistent, and “From Here” sags a bit in the middle. In ‘The Mural,’ about a woman who miscarries after her husband leaves her, the prose doesn’t resonate quite as much as it does in Michalski’s other stories, and the story seems to rely on the stereotype of Latino family dynamics. And the following story, ‘Dog Days,’ is told from the first-person perspective of a 16-year-old Baltimore boy, but the narrator’s voice feels uneven—in one sentence, he derisively talks about “yuppie fucks playing kickball or touch football or whatever their lame asses do,” but a few sentences later describes his brother as having a “concave bird chest,” a far more poetic description than feels appropriate for the narrator Michalski is trying to construct.
But she quickly regains her stride with the next few stories, with characters returning to their families and hometowns and struggling to figure out how you can recreate a sense of belonging to a place or a person once you leave them. You can feel Michalski building the emotional tension as the collection nears its end, and she delivers with a punch to the gut in the concluding story, ‘From Here.’ In it, the main character, Linney, leaves New York and returns to her father’s hostel/mineral springs on the Rio Grande in New Mexico to care for him as he suffers from cancer. Michalski is at the height of her prosaic powers here: As Linney drives home, “the landscape was black, a cloth of velvet pushpinned by stars, keeping its secrets. Such suspense for nothing, she always liked to think.” And later, after Linney catches a glimpse of her ex-boyfriend, she wonders “how she looked to him back at the hostel, ten pounds thinner, her baby flesh scraped out of her face by cigarettes and espresso and four hours’ sleep. By New York, its vampire energy. Its bite was so quick, so fleeting. So much time was spent waiting for the next graze of its teeth.” It culminates with a beautiful, devastating finish, the sort that left me rereading the last paragraph over and over with my breath hitched in my chest.
It certainly isn’t a happy ending—really, it’s not a happy collection; so many of the characters finish their stories still yearning for a place or a person to call home. But Michalski accomplishes what the best fiction does, which is to introduce us to other characters’ minds so that we may not feel so alone in or preoccupied with our own. ν