Where Gould stumbles, is when he addresses race. “Bases” describes a laughing, barefoot, “big and sweating,” seemingly nonverbal black boy (he speaks only in our narrator’s dream), who, during a baseball game that takes place on the white side of the railroad tracks, pelts a rock at a white player’s face.
White locals demonize him and the other residents of Nicholtown (which they call N-town). White children fantasize about conjuring Hitler’s ghost to exact revenge, and even our narrator describes the rock-thrower as unsightly. “He wore a pair of blue jean shorts split way up his legs and no shirt. It looked like he had rubbed some of the new lime on his chest. I could see two white hand prints smeared across his belly.” This cold assessment seems contrary to the narrator’s typically ruminative nature, and the use of a two-dimensional black character as nothing more than a target for white characters’ racial slurs reads like an unfortunate trope.
The same can be said of “May McIntosh Flies, John Wayne Runs,” which introduces white flight and school desegregation with little probing. The narrator asks his black friend Columbus to attend a football game with him at the new private school where the wealthy white students enroll after desegregation. When Columbus reminds the narrator it’s “not a good idea,” the story opens the door to the narrator’s reflection on race-related aggressions. Instead, the narrator casually chalks up Columbus’ response to maturity and self-preservation, completely side-stepping his friend’s very real, underlying fear.
The racism in these two stories feels like an inconsequential setting, one that more appropriately belongs in a collection with an oblivious or self-absorbed narrator. But our guide in “Strangers,” is perceptive and discerning. He condemns the depravity of adults and challenges the status quo. This lack of a deeper engagement with the racial forces that shape small-town South Carolina in the 1970s seems like a missed opportunity.
Despite this shortcoming, Gould has produced a compulsive read. His prose shines, and by linking these stories, as opposed to compiling them in novel form, he highlights the very essence of coming of age, how the myriad, sporadic events in a young life, serve as vital stepping stones on the daunting and oftentimes imperfect journey to adulthood. “One day a switch will flip on and you’ll get about half of life figured out,” our narrator muses. “The other half will stay a mystery. Half is about the best you can hope for.”
‘Strangers to Temptation: Stories’
by Scott Gould
Hub City Press
216 pages, $16.95