“Adults are just obsolete children, and the hell with them,” Dr. Seuss once said. In “Eight Mile High,” Jim Ray Daniels‘ short stories prove Dr. Seuss right.
The adults have no verve or curiosity. They spend most of their waking lives making axles in a Ford factory. They spend their free time drinking. Their kids may not have what you would call happy lives —they know that they too will end up forging car parts —but through their eyes we catch glimpses of humor and beauty in Michigan’s industrial wasteland.
The rough outskirts of Detroit are a landscape that Mr. Daniels knows well — he grew up there. He now lives in Pittsburgh, and teaches creative writing at Carnegie Mellon, yet his subject is the landscape of his childhood and early adult years.
Michigan State University Press ($19.95)
Like his father, he worked in a Ford plant. “The mad noise and frantic pace, the anonymous men in goggles and earphones and identical coveralls, the darkness and oily filth, left him with a bad sweat and a nauseous tremble,” he writes of one of his characters. “Everybody said you got used to it.”
Mr. Daniels has a wonderful eye for capturing the adult bleakness. Grace is said over a dinner of bologna and Oreos. A mother has a desperate affair with a badly dressed salesman of remaindered clothes, their trysts taking place among garish mountains of merchandise. The only approximation of community is the surveillance carried out by a nosy woman who barges in on kids when their parents aren‘t home, catching them as they make out or smoke up.
What saves this collection from utter despair is the language. The kids in these stories are irreverent, and Mr. Daniels playfully mimics their shenanigans with the rhythm of his sentences. He alternates between wild pothead flights-of-fancy and the clipped sentences of the doomed.
“We broke things, we set things on fire, we blew things up, we killed bugs and rodents, we brawled and we mauled, we cussed and we discussed at the volume of low-flying aircraft. We made trouble. We mass-produced it,” he writes.
But there is a downside to Mr. Daniels’ playfulness. His stories jump around, switching from narrator to narrator and stirring up the chronology — so much so that some of them feel more like formal exercises than like stories.
And sometimes the witty one-liners are too witty for their own good, lessening the emotional heft of a story. “If there were a coloring book of Warren, you‘d only need one crayon — the gray one,” he writes, cheapening the beautiful description that has come before.
Mr. Daniels is best known as a poet, and in his stories you can feel his ease at writing verse. The most engaging stories in “Eight Mile High” are the shortest ones, the ones that sound like prose poems.
In “13 Ways of Looking at My Father in His Bathing Suit (Times 2),” we get a quirky portrait of a boy’s father through his aphorisms, his habits, his daily smells. In “The Tall Tale of the Cowboy Mattress,” we get a whole life through the depiction of a man‘s mattress, now slept on by his 14-year-old son.
Even if the longer stories can lag, their sentences are just as striking. To capture the heat of summer, Mr. Daniels describes “mirages puddled on the black tar of the parking lot.” We see a gay man’s loneliness in his love for “the sleek glide of the bowling ball, the rumble over the alley.”
In the end, these stories are deeply American, rooted in the dying industry of the Midwest, a landscape that is hard to live in and hard to describe. Rapper Eminem also grew up around Eight Mile Road, and as he put it in a song that echoes with train whistles and factory clangs, “You gotta live it to feel it, if you didn‘t you wouldn’t get it... / To be walking this borderline of Detroit‘s city limits.”
Jim Ray Daniels has lived it, and through his depictions of rudderless adults and street-smart kids, you can tell that he feels it.
Eric Boodman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3772.