Reviewed by Phillip Mandel
It took me longer than usual to finish Against The Hidden River, a new volume of brutal short stories by Michael W. Cox, not because it wasn’t good, but it was an arduous journey. The book would sit on my nightstand and I’d stare at it and it would stare back, beckoning: Come read another story, Phil, and I’d think, Perhaps I’ll make another cup of tea and watch Battlestar Galactica again. It’s not like listening to Stravinsky or reading Ulysses, difficult pursuits due to their obscurity and erudition; to the contrary, Cox’s style is refreshingly clear and direct. Rather, my reluctance to engage with the work was for the same reason people put off watching movies like Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List: they are emotionally taxing to watch, though powerful and moving.
The men and women who populate Cox’s world are not typical sympathetic heroes, but nor are they complete degenerates; they are complex, tragic characters who are sometimes in control but very often not, and for that they seem very real. But nobody gets a free pass. In fact, Cox puts most of his characters through the ringer quite a bit: they are heartbroken, divorced, confused about their sexuality, racked with self-hatred. For example, in the story “Grove,” a man in his mid-thirties keeps dating high school girls because he can’t bring himself to admit his own homosexuality (he eventually picks up a young male prostitute living in quite a few of these stories). In the opening story, “Send Off,” a passive young Indian-American man watches the world swirl chaotically around him, is too timid to make a move on a girl who is clearly in love with him. But the stories swim in darker waters, too: in the story “Oak Park, Illinois,” a man tries to suffocate his son after the child walks in on him having sex with a young man.
The children especially have a tough time: in “Grand Forks,” a teenager kills a man who he thinks impregnated his new wife; in “One Dark Sky,” a boy thinks of his father as a nightmarish vampire as he watches him invade the homes of other men in the neighborhood and do… something physical with them:
He’d leave me in the car and go up to their apartment and then, half an hour or so later, he’d come back with certain signs: face flushed, hair damp, eyes flashing in all directions, like there’d been some kind of struggle.
In “My Mother’s Lovers,” a nerdy mixed-race high school kid witnesses his black father go crazy with jealousy because his ex-wife is now dating a white woman, which leaves him to dismiss his mother as the kind of woman who “thought it would be interesting to be married to a black man, at least for a while.”
One of the great pleasures of reading is to be transported into an unfamiliar world, and the author accomplishes this successfully (I, for one, have never been a gay male prostitute from a small town trying to make it in the big city, nor have I ever wanted to be: “I am blond-haired and blue-eyed and fair of skin. I am thin, the most desirable whore in Hyde Park.”); but beware: in a world where Michael W. Cox is God, he is a wroth and vengeful one.
Thus, the themes of journey and escape pervade the book, beginning with the eponymous epigraph: “Who are you—who, against the hidden river, were able to escape the eternal prison?” (Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio), continuing through to the last story, “Leopold and Loeb,” which features two men who literally have just escaped a mental institution. And it makes sense: if you inhabited this world for any longer than the time it takes to read a story, you’d probably try to escape, too. In “Oak Park, Illinois,” a young gay man must flee from a well-to-do suburban man’s house as the man’s wife comes home (it is unclear, by the way, if this is the same guy from “The It Boy” or “Grove”):
Baldwin, are you home? his wife, from the garage, calls out, and I head out the doorway into their snowy backyard. There’s a whiffle bat leaning against the side of the house, and a lump of snow beside that probably hides the ball. I keep moving, around the side of Baldwin’s garage and out onto the shoveled suburban sidewalk, the rush of Chicago-bound traffic coming from the thoroughfare at the end of the street.
If it is the same kid, though, then we know that his journey isn’t over when he flees Oak Park. Escape is, in fact, oftentimes actually impossible: he simply moves from one john to the next, barely scraping together enough money to survive. Even in the story “Leopold and Loeb” noted above, only the narrator goes on to freedom – his friend can’t go on – and you are left with a feeling that the narrator’s friend is a guide, like Dante’s Virgil or Beatrice. Many of the characters are confined to their purgatory, and, as the author demonstrates, the only way to escape purgatory is to wait, and to suffer.
Perhaps this is why some of the endings of the stories feel abrupt and unfinished, as if the author’s laptop battery died or he just couldn’t bring himself to inflict any more heartwrenching pain on his characters. After nearly every final paragraph, I was left wanting more… which, to be fair, is probably a very good thing. But as a reader you yearn for the protagonist to win, and in reality he doesn’t always. For example, in the marvelous story “Abandon,” a guy who walks in his sleep (reminiscent of Tyler Durden) is doomed to a life unaware of his affliction, though he does take steps to make his life better by breaking up with his cheating fiancée. There’s movement, at least, but the man’s journey through his own purgatory nevertheless continues to the end of the story without resolution:
He stepped out into the street, which was quiet even for a Sunday, and craned his neck to see if he could see the top of his apartment building. He thought he saw it, finally, to the east, and that’s the direction he headed, hands in his pockets, crumpling up the note.
The writing is creative and original, and the stories span various viewpoints – different ages, ethnicities, sexualities – though nearly all the protagonists are men. If you’re a fan of Raymond Carver, Thom Jones, Mark Helprin, Philip Roth, Rick Bass, I think you’ll enjoy this collection, though I recommend reading it while wearing a pair of sneakers, because after each story you’ll probably feel like going out for a jog.