I grew up in southeastern Kentucky near Straight Creek, a…
Jonathan Corcoran. The Rope Swing: Stories. Morgantown, W. Va.: Vandalia Press, 2016. 144 pages. Softcover. $16.99.
To the Outsider reader—the person who isn’t quite sure how to pronounce “Appalachia” and perhaps can’t locate its reaches on a map—the characters in Jonathan Corcoran’s short story collection The Rope Swing will stand out as just that: standouts who don’t fit the stereotypes of people who live in the mountains. The list includes old and young gay men, an educated female doctor who offers birthing alternatives, a young woman who is half Chinese, and the Appalachian expatriate. Because of this list, the short stories might appear as something different and remarkable. But those readers who know this area will immediately recognize most, if not all, of the characters in this collection; these people are a regular part of everyday life in contemporary Appalachia. What makes this collection noteworthy, then, is that these characters rarely get cast in the lead roles, especially within stories that are as persuasive and fully-formed as those Corcoran presents. Herein lies the beauty in his offering: the world of each story is crafted with a delicate but unabridged touch to the point that the reader can look past the novelty of characterization to deeply enjoy compelling storytelling.
While progressing through the book, the reader will find themes that connect these stories on several levels. Death factors prominently for both people and places. Corcoran’s stories have an understanding that in the wake of older Appalachian industry and heyday, towns and once-great people will ultimately see their decline. “Appalachian Swan Song,” the opening story, is a heavy looming decrescendo that bids farewell to the olden days of social structure in the little town that serves as home in most of the book. It approaches death as something inevitable, which can be difficult to witness in those people who were once the great figures of the town.
But the Appalachia of his tales also understands that someone or something must move forward, which reveals another major theme. Exploration of character is key to the success of most of these stories, and the reader can find satisfaction in seeing characters examine themselves and their relationships inwardly, forwardly, and back through time. This is beautifully demonstrated in the final two stories of the book, “Brooklyn, 4 a.m.” and “A Touch,” the only two that take place outside Appalachia. Here, the main character grapples with being a refugee, having left home and family to live sexually freely in the city. Those people and places which he most misses are the same that caused him to flee, creating a challenging pull against moving forward in life.
Another prominent theme is a strong connection to place. The small-town settings of many of these stories reflect the mountainous feeling of living on a land-locked island. The narratives show the complex reliance upon such a sense of place while simultaneously rejecting the social mores that have been established there. Corcoran’s stories reflect the dichotomous feelings of Appalachian people who are The Other.
When I first read the collection, I found a major shortcoming with the eponymous story, the second in the set. In it, two teenage boys steal away to a remote area in search of sexual freedom to be who they know they are. The voice used in narrating this story was thin, two-dimensional, and at times verged on what you might expect in a romance novel. It wasn’t until I was two-thirds of the way through the entire book that an element of craft revealed itself to me: each story is written with a tone that reflects its main character. This makes wonderful sense considering the collection represents the voices of those who are often overlooked in this genre of literature. When I reread the book, suddenly the title story didn’t come across as being superficial. The second time, the narration read with the inexperience and sexual curiosity of a closeted seventeen-year-old young man. The story bloomed and the character’s timidity found a sense of belonging among countless other isolated young Appalachians. I found a similar narrative satisfaction with other stories. In “Hank The King,” the title character leads two lives. As a father, husband, and businessman, Hank is a triple failure. But the cause of his social defeats is in question: were those his doings or the products of a town in decline? Hank finds respite in his second life as a gambling addict bumming with colorful characters at the local American Legion. At times the narrative has a perfectly suitable lackluster impotence, at times the voice of an abused mutt, and at the moment of validation, that of a high school All-Star who returns to glory decades later. The familiar narrative of long-term issues with temporary fixes makes a solid allegorical point to greater Appalachian predicaments. Corcoran’s narratives are spot-on and his skill for communicating tough situations is great.
Perhaps the deepest understanding of difficult human condition is revealed in “Felicitations,” where an educated, independent female doctor returns home to serve a rural practice. With quickly-established sweeping character, we see the doctor—who normally guides women through alternatives to birth—suddenly forced into a familiar decision when the stonewalled life she built for herself gives way to an unexpected love.
This was not the only story in the collection that made me laugh aloud and cry before the last word was read. Indeed, the world and plight of each story is so real and relatable that on more than one occasion the glimpse offered in a single short story wasn’t enough. I had to set the book down many times to breathe with the emotions and live with the inevitable realities. Because of this I’m eagerly anticipating a follow-up collection, hoping that Corcoran will freshly and genuinely reveal more characters and places that I’ve known all along.