“To us, it came from out of nowhere: two blasts and the roar of a crashing train that rumbled far too long … Those of us who ran outside, the ground beneath us shaking still, saw wobbling plumes of smoke in a Texas postcard sky.”
When the space shuttle Columbia explodes on a Saturday a year and some months after 9/11, its debris scatters across Kiser, a “dinky, third-fiddle” East Texas town where beleaguered residents are expected to help guard the remnants of the doomed voyage until they can be safely hauled away by the authorities. Unfortunately for Kiser, not even the astronauts’ bodies burned up upon re-entry into the atmosphere. Within minutes, the pastures that run along Route 20 and the Sabine River become a makeshift graveyard. The gruesome carnage that embeds itself in bales of hay, in briar patches and schoolyards, forces this quiet community to grapple with its newfound national attention and reckon with uncomfortable truths.
Each chapter of Kathryn Schwille’s scintillating debut novel, “What Luck, This Life,” focuses on the desires and dilemmas of one or two of its eccentric, indelible characters. As a result, the book reads like a linked short story collection. Residents of Kiser make do with only one drug store, one hardware store, two banks and a furniture store on Main Street, and they give side-eyes to the new yoga studio. Some prefer to insulate themselves from the problems of urban cities and hang out with people they’ve known since elementary school. Others itch to go elsewhere, to fulfill dreams outside of Kiser’s borders.
Regardless, the catastrophe that befalls the town serves as a wake-up call to some of the residents, a catalyst that offers them a chance to imagine different trajectories for themselves while also (literally) picking up the pieces from the explosion. “The people of Kiser had spread their arms around [this] disaster and accepted the great burden of its grief.”
Carter Bostic is fed up with Kiser, family obligations and the sexual harassment she endures from Newland Sparks while working behind the counter at the corner store. Every week he finds a new way to torture her. “It was making her stomach hurt, a slow burn right in the pit. She’d just as soon Newland Sparks come in now, get his jerk-ass crap over with … and she could maybe – maybe – have a little peace for the rest of the day.”
While dislodging an astronaut’s torso from a tree, Wes MacFarland, a closeted gay man, hides the real reason he separated from his wife from both his brother Grady, a volunteer firefighter, and his young son, Frankie. “As far as I knew they still loved me, in their innocence of who I was, of who I was about to become. I was living on borrowed time. I was not yet, to them, infested with rot.”
While Gabriel Dixon guards a female human hand with a ring still on its finger near a backyard wood pile, he endures the judgment of his cocky son, Raymond, who dares to bring home a white girl to Gabe’s house. “It was his experience that white folks approached the space around them with a sense of expansion. His long-standing habit, when he was with them, was to stay in his own space and guard it.”
While hunting down parts of the wreckage, James Trenholder, a man who has always searched for something in life grander than himself, comes to terms with the fact that he and his wife, Lauren, may be heading toward divorce. “It could be that this was the point where James gave up on his dream, his idea that his life could be sweet and joyous, that he could be a modern man with a modern attitude about life and love and the lengths to which we can go, must go, to prove that we care for one another.”
The reconnaissance mission for shuttle parts is a dangerous one. NASA warns of potentially radioactive material, noxious fumes and chemical contamination. But long before the accident, another kind of poison had already seeped into the ether. While watching over his brother, Carl, who lies on his deathbed, Jimmy Hubble contemplates his brother’s penchant for cruelty and the vicious emotional abuse he delivered to others. “I know there are people who think emotions stick in our tissues, giving off signals that change the workings of the body. I think about the body’s misfires, messages that get sent and can’t be taken back, like words you wish you’d never let out.”
Schwille’s prose is vibrant. Among the wreckage, she paints an exuberant natural landscape. “Sweet gum brushes where these branches grew and in the slightest stir of air a gum ball drops, stiff sphere of autumn’s brown. Drunk with pleasure at morning mist, roots register all landings – this weight tiny, that one big.” Each word of this slim novel is impactful. Despite the characters’ grim undertaking, the world Schwille envisions is one no reader will ever want to leave.
In the end, when the sky falls over Kiser, it reminds its inhabitants about their own mortality, that death is one of life’s greatest mysteries and that it can be as fickle and unpredictable as a mechanical malfunction. “None of us know the forces of play within us … What do any of us know about how the end truly comes about.”
‘What Luck, This Life’
By Kathryn Schwille
Hub City Press
224 pages, $24.95