The Wars of Heaven: Short Stories
By Richard Currey
Santa Fe Writers Project
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
West Virginia during the Great Depression is the setting for The Wars of Heaven: Short Stories by Richard Currey. In six short stories and a novella, Currey paints a picture of life filled with unrelenting poverty and random violence. It is also a life filled with tragedy, comedy, and the challenges of faith, whether that faith is in unionizing the coal mines or the faith found in clapboard churches that dot the mountainous landscape.
In countless reviews, Currey’s writing has been described as poetic. This comes from a writer who has won the O. Henry and Pushcart prizes. He has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in both fiction and poetry. Although citing a litany of awards doesn’t make a great writer. (This can also be said for writers who pen bestsellers.) What makes The Wars of Heaven a pleasure to read involved Currey’s verbal concision. Not a word is wasted in any of his stories. But the writing is such that one doesn’t immediately think “literary,” at least when that word means an undue attention to the sentence at the expense of the narrative. Currey combines a highly precise prose style with stories filled with compelling characters and forward-moving narratives.
The opening story hovers between an elegant short story and a prose poem. “Tyler’s Ballad” tells the story of Edward Tyler, an elderly train engineer who marries a much younger woman. He remains oblivious to her melancholy until his brother discovers she committed suicide with a shotgun. Currey creates a believable setting and a powerful story arc all within seven pages. For anyone learning the nuts and bolts of writing a short story, he or she should read “Tyler’s Ballad.” This is just one of many sad stories in The Wars of Heaven. But there are several shades of sadness, a subtle gradation ranging from the relentlessly bleak like “Tyler’s Ballad” to the darkly comical, as in “Believer’s Flood.”
“Believer’s Flood” involves the reminisces of an aged coal miner, wheezing with black lung. Like Job, he has endured a series of calamities. These hardships stem from Raymond Dance’s attempts to unionize the Red Jacket Consolidated Coal and Coke Company in Red Jacket, West Virginia. The suffering and futility of the unionizing efforts, combined with Raymond’s catastrophic domestic life, only sharpen the comedy. The comedy comes from the razor sharp irony of the entire situation. Raymond puts his life on the line and sacrifices his domestic happiness for a job he hates that will kill him with slow agonizing cruelty. (In yet another year of this interminable Great Recession, I’m sure a few readers will identify with Raymond’s situation.)
The titular short story focuses on a botched robbery and gunfight. For this story, Currey creates a literary style similar to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. The narrator, a not-too-bright wannabe outlaw, tells the tale in long winding sentences. This storytelling comes in sharp contrast to the terse and taciturn stories told by stoic workingmen.
The short story collection ends with the novella, “The Love of a Good Woman.” Delbert Keene narrates the first part and the second two parts are told in third person. The novella traces the misadventures of Delbert as he gets divorced and committed to an insane asylum. After being discharged, he joins the circus and participates in what some see as a terribly planned bank robbery. He infuriates people around him because he is a dreamer and a kind of amateur public intellectual. He seems completely out of place wherever he goes, but remains gleeful and positively oblivious to the common practicalities of this flint-hard West Virginia existence. Whereas the short stories before this were a spectrum of tragedy, the novella is a lighthearted comedy. Beyond the well-polished sentence and verbal concision, Currey is a master arranger. The comic tale at the end of these sad stories hearkens back to Greek theater with the satyr following the Sophoclean tragedy. “The Love of a Good Woman” offers necessary breathing space and a break from the sadness. He still fills the story with the requisite poverty and suffering, but this time the situations have a comic twist. It is with the slightest tonal shift that can turn a tale of unrelenting sadness into one of gut-busting hilarity. Currey, like Samuel Beckett, can ride the fine line between the two tones with a deft touch.
I’m giving this a perfect 10, not only because it is fine writing, but because these are stories that can be enjoyed because they entertain. For those interested in the Great Depression, this can be enjoyed in the same way as the HBO series Carnivale. This also makes a nice addition to the bookshelf for those who like to read Depression-era writers like John Steinbeck, Samuel Beckett, and William Faulkner.
Out of 10/10