In case you haven’t already heard, Ryan Werner (author of Shake Away These Constant Days; Murmuration; and Oh Lie, I Thought You Were Golden) has a new chapbook out from Passenger Side Books: If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train. There’s eight short stories in this one . . . and some pretty interesting ones at that.
The aspect that intrigued me most about this chapbook is the way Werner writes the stories in such a minimalistically gritty and earthy way while still having the core soul soar effortlessly. The lines are solid like asphalt chucks thrown through the windows of a deserted warehouse, but the essence is as delicate and beautiful as freshly blown glass.
In the title story, two brothers are riding trains in opposite directions:
I’m on a train going one way and my twin brother Keith is on a train going the other way. Both of our noses look like a blown-apart tulip, the same hot blood on our knuckles, the same problem of not knowing who the oldest is, not knowing which of us should sign away their years and worship the other.
The tickets are one last gift from our lying mother. When we were kids, she told Keith he was the oldest and told me I was the oldest and told each of us not to say a word about it, and neither of us did until Keith started a sentence with the phrase As the older brother on the railway platform and a few words later I punched him in the face and he punched me right back.
The story ties into Jesus and potential brothers he might have had, as well as whether one would rather be Jesus or the son of Joseph. There’s no way the two brothers on the trains will ever know the truth, but what real good would knowing do them?
In “There is No Joy Between the Last Thing and the Next Thing,” two recovering alcoholics drink poison while the girlfriend of one of them is pregnant with triplets:
The reason we drink poison with water and not liquor is the same reason I’ve wrecked four cars that were mine and two cars that weren’t…Eugene went to the meetings with me. Years back, he’d set the pace for our drinking and then stopped on his own when he found out he’d actually be able to live through it. It’s nothing he’d ever say, but there were always bigger problems for him to deal with, ones that couldn’t be defined by medicine or helped by meetings and, therefore, became something to alternately feed and fix.
Maybe devotion isn’t a circle, but it’s definitely a shape.
Alternating living and self-destruction, what does one do with the fact that one is alive? These two characters answer that question as much as they don’t.
In both of these examples, the prose at the line level is completely straightforward and stark. What the lines build to though, is something far more ephemeral and penetrates the heart as opposed to the gut. It’s something you can feel, but not something you can hold in your hands for very long.
I felt like I ‘got it’ precisely as I finished each story in If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train and excitedly wanted to turn to a person next to me and tell them about it. However, then I couldn’t and needed to reread the story. Then I just gave up and decided to tell that imaginary person read it. If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train is some impressive writing.