In the Quiet Season
Martha Amore, University of Alaska Press/Alaska Literary Series, 112 pages, 2018. $16.95
"In the Quiet Season," the opening story of the recent short fiction collection of the same name by Anchorage author Martha Amore, finds a couple — whose marriage has taken a deep self-inflicted wound — out gathering firewood in the forest near Fairbanks when they come across a badly injured eagle. Tara, the wife, whose recent act of infidelity is the cause of the marriage's decline, wants to save the bird by taking it to the emergency pet clinic. Her husband Ted, who serves as narrator, wants to leave it to its fate.
The bird is, of course, a metaphor for the marriage. Tara, a teacher, had cheated on Ted the previous winter, destroying 15 years of trust in one night. The choice they make in whether or not to save the eagle reflects the choice they confront in whether or not to save the marriage.
Amore, who teaches writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage, is treading on familiar ground for literary fiction. Too familiar to be honest, and she sticks with formula for the next two stories, each involving marital betrayal and little more. Twenty-eight pages and three stories in, readers can be forgiven for thinking that the book will be a collection of mundane tales of urban professionals who cheat on their spouses and nothing more. Apart from being set in Alaska, there seems to be little here that differentiates this book from work found in the average literary journal. Therefore it becomes tempting to decide that it's not going anywhere and set it aside.
This would be a mistake.
The next three stories in this collection of a half dozen take off in ways that the first three don't even suggest possible. And while infidelity remains a common theme throughout the entire set, what follows are tales that will draw readers into them in ways the first three don't.
What's lacking in the early stories is clear character development and context. The individuals are never defined beyond their marital failings. Why they cheat isn't really explained. Boredom perhaps. But when Amore turns her attention to creating more fully fleshed-out stories where the infidelity is a background factor rather than the plot driver, things begin to happen.
In "Long Weekend," a recently divorced woman named Barbara, living in her home in Anchorage, is visited by her mother, a brash character who blasts into this book and suddenly makes it seem real. Barbara's mother is a bold, hard-driving, controlling and excessively proud sort who had even named her daughter after herself. She arrives intent on taking over her daughter's life and setting it into what she considers proper order.
The elder Barbara is a whirlwind and one of the two most human characters in this book. The standoff between her and her daughter, who narrates the story, is perfectly timed by Amore, who builds the tensions between the two to the inevitable point where both have to acknowledge that their mother-daughter relationship can only remain stable if each fully acknowledges the independence of the other.
The next story, "Painkillers," is even stronger. Here we find Henry, a down-on-his-luck Anchorage resident, who is running a housekeeping business with his photographer girlfriend Anna. In this story, infidelity is suspected but never confirmed. Anna is readying for her first opening at a gallery with the help of a man Henry has not met, but whom she doesn't quit talking about.
Anna remains offstage for most of the tale, and we learn the suspicions from Henry, the narrator. We also discover that the couple has taken to stealing prescription drugs from the clients whose houses they clean. Henry is popping pills all the way through the story as he falls into an unexpected friendship with one of those customers and tries to come to terms with what he suspects is a relationship in its final throes. As his life falls apart, Henry emerges as the most sympathetic character in the book.
This is the first story to feel genuinely Alaskan, although not in the traditional way. Through Henry, Amore is exploring the hopelessness that besets poorer residents of Anchorage who find themselves in a city where things can happen that wouldn't elsewhere — like the sudden appearance of a moose downtown — but who are stuck in dead-end lives fully removed from the wilderness just beyond. It's a reality for many people in urban Alaska (and one detailed with remarkable clarity in Mary Kudenov's 2017 nonfiction book "Threadbare"). In the realm of Alaskan literature, this is an unusual setting, and all the more welcome for it.
The longest and most emotionally draining tale is the last one, "Weathered In." It begins in Talkeetna, where a young woman named Rachel and her boyfriend Karl have arrived to climb Denali. Both are restless travelers and climbers with little thought for the future. The day before departing for the mountain, Karl decides that Rachel is to be left behind, however, owing to an unknown illness.
As Rachel suspects, she's pregnant. The story follows the couple's trajectory as they decide to make their home in Alaska. Karl, however, suffering from the selfishness that's practically required of anyone who wants to climb mountains, is soon back at it, becoming an absentee father while Rachel remains home with the baby and the dog. While Karl lives his dreams, she's anchored down in Anchorage.
This story feels very Alaskan as well, what with the mountaineering. And again the infidelity, when it comes, is important to the story, though not central to it. Amore sticks with her theme but places it in a context never found in the three opening stories.
Amore creates compelling characters and interesting plots in the second half, inadvertently highlighting how the first three stories feel like throwaways. She's a writer who needs to spend more time building her characters and creating their lives. When she does this she gives readers something to hold onto.