REVIEW

Field Observations

by Rob Davidson (Grenada 1990–92)
University of Missouri Press
$17.95
200 pages
May 2001

Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)

    PERHAPS IT'S SELF-SERVING TO SAY SO, but material a writer finds as a Peace Corps Volunteer tends to be rich in dramatic possibility. This is certainly true of Field Observations, Rob Davidson’s fine debut collection of short stories. The two best stories in this nine-story collection both touch on the Peace Corps experience.
         In “A Private Life,” a Volunteer on Carriacou finds herself romantically involved with a doctor from Guyana. They are drawn to each other because of the similarity of their circumstances: both are foreigners in a place that isn’t particularly welcoming. But if they are strangers in a strange land, they are also, despite their sexual intimacy, mostly strangers to each other. This changes when Jo confronts Ravi about whether the rumor about him — that he has left a wife and family back in Guyana — is true. “A Private Life” isn’t particularly uplifting — Jo’s house is robbed, dashing her latest effort to reach out to her community — but the story is realistic in its portrayal of a Volunteer’s feelings of alienation and longing.
         In “Barnstorming,” the narrator is more of an observer than a participant in life. Appropriately, he’s a bird-watcher: “He hid in thickets, under big trees, on rock outcrops or under them. Just about anywhere he could go where he could comfortably sit still and go unnoticed for long periods of time.” But his cousin, an RPCV, takes him up in a biplane, then subtly proposes another kind of adventure. What Laurie, the cousin, says about the narrator’s mother applies to her as well: “That woman’s got it where it counts. She does what she wants, and she doesn’t care who gets pissed off.”
         The other seven stories here offer their own surprises and satisfactions. As in “Barnstorming,” the central characters often find themselves overshadowed, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes disturbingly, by others. In the collection’s opening tale, “Inventory,” the narrator, a warehouse manager, tries to keep Harold, a volatile employee, in check. But Harold, like Lenny in Of Mice and Men, is destined to have an encounter with rabbits. It’s up to the narrator to do what he can to prevent disaster. In “You Have to Say Something,” Fran, the story’s central character, meets Sam at a coffeehouse. Sam is “a woman with a history” Fran concludes, and when Sam begins giving regular gifts to Fran — even gifts she seemingly can’t afford — Fran grows suspicious of her motivations. Their confrontation over Sam’s generosity could make or break their friendship.
         The collection’s funniest piece is “The Hillside Slasher,” in which the narrator writes a letter, delivered posthumously, to one of his — or, rather, his and his wife’s — victims. There is nothing macabre about the story. Murder isn’t the crime, slashing tires is. And the motivation isn’t madness, but politics.
         Several of Davidson’s protagonists are down on their luck, and under a heavier hand, their stories might have been saccharine. But Davidson doesn’t shy from finding small triumphs in otherwise victory-less lives: the comfort a neighbor offers, the promise of a borrowed automobile.
         In “What We Leave Behind,” a former NCAA champion college golfer finds himself selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. But he doesn’t feel sorry for himself; neither does Davidson feel sorry for him. His voice, like Davidson’s throughout the collection, is straightforward, plain and observant. His small triumph comes about through circumstance, but if you ring enough doorbells, you’re bound to hit gold: “He took the beer from the mantle of the fireplace, and that’s when he saw the golf club sticking out of the umbrella stand next to the patio door. He picked up the club. It was ancient iron, with a worn, slightly tarnished head and a blonde, wooden shaft.”
         Davidson’s stories don’t offer the psychological intrigue of, say, stories by Alice Munro or the lyricism of Amy Bloom’s fiction. But that’s not their intention. Davidson aims to tell the stories of regular people trying to find satisfaction and maybe even a little happiness in a rough world. And he does this well.

    Mark Brazaitis is the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and Steal My Heart, a novel.