Thirty years ago, I don't think Ina Claire Gabler's collection Unexpected Return would have been self-published. It would have been published, but not by the author. A small press with a solid backlist, or a university press affiliated with a literary journal, would have seen the merits of these engaging stories and warm, quirky characters. Out would have come a unique, interesting, intelligent group of stories. An editor's firm hand might have discouraged unnecessarily dividing the book into four thematic sections, and pointed out little hiccups in otherwise direct, steady prose— such as "Her heart struck wildly at her brittle ribs," and then, a few paragraphs later, "her heart kept striking her ribs that could split any second."
No matter. Gabler's collection is worth reading. As some of her characters do so easily, I'm just imagining what might have been. But self-publishing is part of the new literary climate, and a publisher's contract is no longer required for credibility. Good thing, or we wouldn't have this treasure of a book.
Gabler's 28 stories are grown-up tales written with a time-found expansiveness of heart and an appreciation for the tiny details and odd textures that make up a life. Within a very small amount of space (sometimes just five pages), characters experience illness, lost loves, bad hair, anthropomorphic regrets about that fish on the hook, and wistful chance encounters while crossing a busy intersection. Many pieces are set in New York City, where in Gabler's hands even traffic lights have personality. It's this milieu that feels the most vibrantly rendered, as if by dwelling in the Hudson Valley, the ex-pat writer can now depict her city with real soul.
The first story, "A Vast Number of Breakfasts," is a strong piece, focusing on an old woman making her husband's breakfast for the umpteenth time. She has suffered a secret knowledge of his betrayal for their entire marriage. At this breakfast, armed with numbers: how many black coffees poured, how many dinners served — a wife's domestic mathematics — she's finally going to confront him.
Some of my favorite short stories distill a character's conflict into that decisive moment when they can handle the pressure no more, and this woman's need to finally face her husband would have been plenty. But Gabler levitates the tale into an eerie, unexpected place, where all those numbers might as well disappear into the ether. The narrative's tangible details, such as when the woman checks her husband's coffee cup for specks (and finds none), become not only poignant, but also spooky. Gabler starts out honoring Grace Paley and winds up channeling Edgar Allan Poe.
Similar narrative skill is apparent in the gorgeous "Vivienne's World." A woman dances to Haitian music around her dining table. That's all she does. Dance, and think. She's facing surgery for breast cancer and, like many in this position, her doctor is now a major figure in her life. She dances, sweats, and thinks about the doctor (Goodstein). A flashback to what happened just after she received the news has an amazingly lifelike, this-could-be-me quality:
Afterwards, Vivienne fled down Broadway and replayed what had happened in his office: Goodstein's hands fluttered like pale birds in her mind. She thought she had glimpsed bitten nails when he gestured but she was too dazed to be sure. In her Broadway stampede to nowhere, she decided it was so: He bit his nails.
A lovely shift takes place in Vivienne—from a dissociated mind recalling anything but the facts to a sweet sense of the doctor's humanity, and then of what could be. All the while, she's still dancing. She thinks about her own life, its failures, departures. The warmer she gets, the more she moves, the more she begins to think about the doctor in terms of what could happen. Instead of a death sentence, she's propelled along by a sense of possibility, her illness now turned into a means of attraction. It's charming, it's surprising, it's marvelous. Interview 1/31 at 10pm, WVKR, 91.3, Story Hour with Evi Lowman. Appearing 2/10 at 2pm, Hyde Park Library; 2/23 at 7pm, Universalist Fellowship Church, Poughkeepsie.