Small towns are sirens that lure many an author to use them as settings for their novels or collections of short stories, but they are two-edged swords. The latest author to grasp that sword is James Terry, whose collection of stories about Deming, N.M., “Kingdom of the Sun,” is being published this month by the University of New Mexico Press ($19.95 in paperback, 216 pages).
The allure of the small town is almost irresistible for a writer. Sherwood Anderson pulled it off with his pathbreaking “Winesburg, Ohio” overlapping short stories, as did Thomas Wolfe in his bitter novel of Asheville, N.C., “You Can’t Go Home Again.” But both writers also suffered the slings and arrows of the towns they so profoundly and indelicately depicted. A small town can quickly bite the author that it has fed.
A small town brings together a diverse group of people, men and women, children and adults, rich and poor, athletes and the infirm, criminals and their nemeses. It keeps all these people in motion in a confined space, forcing them to interact with each other. It has limited geography and unlimited emotions. Most Americans have spent time in a small town, growing up or old, searching or despairing, immigrating or emigrating, seeking a haven or trying to flee a prison. A small town is everything.
The problem, of course, is that everything is too much. It is the kind of reality that everyone knows, or at least thinks he knows. When people who live in a small town hear that an author who used to live in a small town has written a book about a small town, they assume, often correctly, that it must be based on where he lives or used to live. If they happen to live in that town, they want to know why the fictional small town is so much like theirs; or if it isn’t, then why did he change their town so much? In either case, they damn him for focusing on the warts without realizing that it is the warts that make a good story.
The people who live in small towns are a writer’s blessings, his heroes and villains, but they are also his nemesis. Everyone in town plays the guessing game, trying to figure out which characters are stand-ins for which real townsmen. And if the characters don’t resemble real people, they ask why don’t they? Aren’t we good enough to be characters in this guy’s book?
But if the townsmen are actually in the book in some form that is—or at least that they think is—recognizable as themselves, they are even more unhappy. Why did this guy assume he had the right to invade our privacy and put us out there for the whole world to see?
And worst of all, why did he have to give us all those ugly, unpleasant characteristics? Why did he make the hair or our heads so sparse, our eyebrows so bushy, our stature so short, our voice so tinny, our children so uncontrollable, our mate so absent-minded, our car so dirty, our house so small, our job so dull, our street lights so dim, our paint so peeling? Why didn’t he make our world as perfect as we’d like it to be, never mind how it is?
You might ask what my credentials are to go on so much about small town fictions. The answer is that I have been trying to write about them for years. And I have yet to succeed. If I make everything up, then I feel the story lacks verisimilitude. If I base the characters on people that I have encountered in many a small town, I worry I am taking liberties I have no right to, and they will resent it. What Buddhists call the Middle Way, the reconciliation of opposites, has consistently eluded me, as it does many other writers, including those whose talents far exceed mine. A fiction writer’s life is not an easy one.
Thus I approached “Kingdom of the Sun” with a lot of curiosity and almost as much trepidation. “This town is a lot weirder than it looks,” one character remarks, giving voice to the great attraction of small towns: They are never as simple as they appear. Another character refers to “the adage that small towns hold no secrets.” Secrets, in fact, are everywhere, in a parking lot, on a football field, at a table in a greasy spoon, in a church pew, on the back seat of a car. Without secrets, there’d be no stories, and even the most humdrum of small towns is chockablock with stories.
The secret of Deming, or at least Terry’s fictionalized Deming, is pathos. His characters are ordinary men and women, some of them adolescents, some of them octogenarians, who have small dreams and hopes, but as small as they are, they are repeatedly frustrated, partially by the realities of this place but mostly by the truths of who they are. In this small city surrounded in all directions by an immense desert, they live their lives on a small scale. They struggle to find equilibrium between what they are and what they want to be, only to see their frailties and self-delusions undermine their lives.
This book is all about sadness writ small. One story is about a tennis game, two others about football games. Several stories are about sex, the kind of sex that doesn’t happen, or shouldn’t happen, or happens badly: A truck driver is seduced by a teenager, a county roads employee can’t resist the lure of a pregnant woman. A panicky boy abandons the girl he claims to love when an angry homeowner discovers them swimming in his pool at midnight. A transient has a pathological fear of water. And always the vast arid expanse of the Chihuahua Desert limits and distorts their lives.
This is Terry’s first book, although most of the stories were published in literary periodicals and one in a previous UNM Press anthology.
Although he left Deming and now lives in Liverpool, England, his stories are colored by fond memories of his former home. Most of the stories have the feel of having been written decades ago, before ubiquitous cell phones and drug cartels, when Terry was a younger man closer to his roots. Some of the best passages describe the beauty of the desert, the sunsets and wildflowers and mountains, their colors and smells and sounds, and the winds that can change in a flash from refreshing breezes to fearsome storms.